A LAW that has allowed at least six people to escape possible prosecution for murder in recent years should be scrapped, according to Barbara Mills QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions.
In a letter, Mrs Mills calls for the centuries-old 'year and a day' rule to be scrapped. Since the 16th century an assailant cannot be charged with murder if the victim dies more than a year and a day after the incident.
With the advent of the life-support machine, such a time limit has been made superfluous. In her letter to the Labour MP Alan Milburn, the DPP cited five cases since 1990 where victims stayed alive for more than 366 days and their attackers escaped with lesser charges than murder or manslaughter.
The five cases highlighted by the DPP are:
A victim received serious injuries in a disturbance. He died after 366 days and his attacker was prosecuted for causing grievous bodily harm;
The defendant supplied a drugs overdose to the victim who went into a coma and died more than a year and a day later. The defendant was convicted of unlawfully supplying drugs and received five years' imprisonment;
A man was beaten up, and was in a coma until he died two years later. His assailant was charged with inflicting grievous bodily harm;
After medical treatment went wrong, the victim suffered severe brain damage and was put on a life-support machine. Death occurred more than 366 days later. Mrs Mills said that because of difficulties with evidence no charge has been brought but in any event, if it had, the crime would have been grievous bodily harm;
Michael Gibson, the only victim named by the DPP, who died in April 1992, 16 months after being attacked in Mr Milburn's Darlington constituency. His attacker received two years' jail for grievous bodily harm.
Mr Milburn also uncovered another example - the case of Pamela Banyard, 33, a Suffolk shop assistant who died in 1988, some 18 months after she was left for dead by a teenage robber.
Mrs Mills writes that the 'definition of murder was formulated in an age in which modern medical advances were not dreamt of, let alone their implications appreciated'.
The use of life-support machines means 'there may now be cases in which death does not occur within a year and a day (either in terms of brain death or heart death), yet where there can be no doubt about the causal link between the act of the accused and the harm sustained by the victim'. Accordingly, the DPP writes: 'We consider that it is inappropriate in modern times to maintain the 'year and a day' rule and we recommend its abolition.'
Her intervention and the disclosure of at least six cases will give weight to campaigners pressing for a change in the law. Led by Mr Milburn, they have so far focused their attention only on the case of Mr Gibson.
The DPP's views were supported by the police last night. A spokeswoman for the Police Federation said: 'We are definitely in favour of scrapping it. With advances in science and medicine people can be kept alive for a long time, so it's a complete anomaly at the moment.' The Association of Chief Police Officers is also believed to favour modernisation.
The Law Commission is looking into the rule and is due to report next month with, it is understood, a recommendation that the limit be extended from a year and a day to four years. However, Mr Milburn is concerned that the Government is not bound to accept the commission's finding and so far, he maintains, has shown little inclination to drop the rule.
He claimed the DPP's five cases illustrated the urgency of the problem warned that until changes are made 'the number of victims caught in this legal time-warp can only increase'.
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