Legal experts have raised questions over a law the justice secretary promised would mean “mandatory life sentences” for people who accidentally kill police officers.
The government has not published the text of Harper’s Law, named after killed police officer Andrew Harper, or said when it will be brought before parliament.
Dominic Raab said the change, sparked by a campaign by PC Harper’s wife, would “pass into law mandatory life sentences for those who unlawfully kill an emergency worker in the course of their duty”.
But the law will only be invoked if certain circumstances are met, and judges will still be able to hand out sentences lower than life tariffs.
The courts must already impose life sentences for murder, and since 2018 judges have had to increase sentences for manslaughter, assault and other offences if they are committed against emergency workers.
The new change is targeted at manslaughter – where an offender kills someone without intending to.
Life sentences will become the starting point for manslaughter of an emergency services worker who is on duty, but judges will be able to reduce the punishment in “exceptional circumstances”.
The law will not cover off-duty officers and emergency services personnel, and only include those exercising their duties at the time of death.
It will only apply to offenders who kill a victim “while carrying out another crime”, a Ministry of Justice press release said.
“Judges will have the option to impose a different sentence in exceptional circumstances if there are exceptional circumstances which relate to the offender or the offence which would make it unjust to apply the minimum sentence,” it added.
Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg said the maximum sentence for manslaughter was already life imprisonment, but it was not mandatory.
“The proposed change does not mean that those convicted of manslaughter in England and Wales after killing an emergency worker will definitely be sentenced to life imprisonment,” he added.
“Still less does the government say that offenders convicted of manslaughter after killing an emergency worker will receive a whole life order.”
Mr Rozenberg said the difference between deliberate murder and accidental manslaughter was “fundamental to our sentencing law” in the UK.
Anonymous author the Secret Barrister accused the government of “exploiting a widow’s grief for political gain”.
Mr Raab said the law will not be retrospective, meaning PC Harper’s killers cannot have their sentences extended.
The justice secretary told BBC Breakfast: “That is one of the things that made us look very carefully and focus on changing the law, but of course it only applies to crimes and sentences going forward; I think that’s the right thing to do.”
He described PC Harper’s death as “harrowing” and paid tribute to “the amazing job” his widow has done in pressing for change.
The Thames Valley Police officer was dragged to his death after responding to a quad bike theft in August 2019, when his leg became caught in a tow rope attached to a getaway car.
Driver Henry Long, 19, and passengers Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole, both 18, were cleared of murder over what the defence called a “freak event”. Long was jailed for 16 years and Cole and Bowers were each jailed for 13 years.
The attorney general, Suella Braverman, personally fought for their sentences to be increased at the Court of Appeal but senior judges dismissed claims they were “unduly lenient” and said law and guidelines had been followed.
Responding to Wednesday’s announcement, PC Harper’s wife Lissie said emergency services workers “require extra protection”.
“I know all too well how they are put at risk and into the depths of danger on a regular basis on behalf of society,” she added.
“That protection is what Harper’s Law will provide and I am delighted that it will soon become a reality.”
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said Labour would support the proposals when they come before parliament, and that the emergency services “deserve the strongest protection”.
The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers and has been supporting the campaign, said it hoped the change would act as a deterrent.
Chair John Apter added: “I hope the introduction of a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of killing a police officer, or emergency worker, will act as a strong deterrent and stop needless violence against my colleagues.”
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, welcomed the announcement, adding: “Police officers and staff are out in all of our communities day and night dealing with crime and criminals. They very often have to place themselves in harm’s way and tragically, as we all saw with the loss of PC Harper, that can result in the ultimate sacrifice.
“Officers and staff deserve the full protection of the criminal justice system.”
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