Compulsory life terms 'should end': Leading judge says automatic sentence for murder causes potential injustice. Heather Mills reports

AN INFLUENTIAL committee, chaired by Lord Lane, the former Lord Chief Justice, has called for an end to the compulsory life sentence for murder.

Lord Lane said the law should not treat a terrorist or hit-man in the same way as a battered wife who kills her violent partner, or a doctor or relative who helps in a mercy killing. 'I cannot believe there is public support for this,' he said.

The report, which has widespread support from the judiciary, including Lord Taylor, the current Lord Chief Justice, will add to pressure on the Government to reform the law on murder in its forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill. However, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, not wanting to be seen as soft on crime, yesterday said on ITN news: 'I am not persuaded by anything I have so far heard.'

But Lord Lane said: 'Abolition of the mandatory life sentence is not a sign of weakness on law and order. It is a change which will restore meaning to the sentence of life imprisonment, strengthen public confidence in the courts, and reassure the families of victims.'

The committee, which included Lord Windlesham, the former chairman of the Parole Board, Sir Patrick Russell, a Court of Appeal judge, and Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, chairman of the Mental Health Commission, recommended that a full range of penalties be available to judges - from life for the most serious of killers, to one that might allow freedom.

Lord Lane said that, after considering evidence from a wide range of individuals and organisations, 'the clear conclusion is that the mandatory life sentence results in potential injustice, while confusing and misleading the public. The purpose of our recommendations is to end the unsavoury courtroom devices currently adopted to evade the difficulties which result from the mandatory life sentence.

'In addition, decisions on punishments will be made openly by judges and not in secret by politicians.'

Currently, when a trial judge gives a mandatory life sentence, he or she then makes a confidential recommendation for a fixed number of years, which is sent to the Lord Chief Justice, who adds his view and forwards it to the Home Secretary to make the final decision on a release date. But the committee said there should be no executive role and criticised Mr Howard's statement last July that, before any life prisoner is released on licence, he would consider the 'public acceptability'.

'Experience teaches that when politicians resort to public opinion as a basis for a change of policy or a fresh course of action, it is advisable to scrutinise the proposals with particular care,' the committee said.

Its report says: 'The judges at present find themselves having to pass a sentence which in many cases is patently inappropriate and does not mean what it says. This does nothing to enhance their standing and nothing to enhance the authority of the law.'

It points out that the Prison Service is forced to spend a disproportionate amount of time, energy and resources dealing with a large number of lifers - a great many not a danger to the public - who pose special problems caused by the fact that they do not know when they are to be freed.

Report of the Committee on the Penalty for Homicide; pounds 5.95; Prison Reform Trust, 59 Caledonian Road, London N1 9BU.

(Photograph omitted)

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