Top prosecutor backs US-style murder laws for Britain

Law Editor,Robert Verkaik
Thursday 09 September 2010 00:00

Britain's most senior prosecutor has added his voice to the calls for a radical reform of Britain's murder law.

Keir Starmer QC, who as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said that he supports recommendations made by the Law Commission for a move towards US-style homicide law, in which the seriousness of the offence is ranked by degrees.

Mr Starmer's intervention will add pressure to the Government's ongoing review of criminal justice, which will also consider reform of murder.

But the rationale behind the DPP's decision remains a mystery. All the CPS would say yesterday was that the DDP had answered "yes" to a question about whether he agreed with the Law Commission's recommendations.

Earlier this year, Mr Starmer was forced to issue new guidance on assisted suicide which many believe has softened the prosecution's approach to those who assist in the death of the terminally ill.

In February, Mr Starmer wrote in a newspaper article: "Assisted suicide involves assisting the victim to take his or her own life. Someone who takes the life of another undertakes a very different act and may well be liable to a charge of murder or manslaughter. That distinction is an important one that we all need to understand."

When Mr Starmer later published his guidelines, he made it clear that relatives who actively help a terminally ill individual to die are not covered by the guidelines and individuals could be expected to be charged with murder or manslaughter.

Under the Law Commission's recommendations, first-degree murder would carry a mandatory life sentence. Second-degree murder, a life term at the discretion of the judge plus sentence guidelines, while manslaughter would carry a maximum penalty of life.

The Law Commission, which reviews and recommends reform to the law, made wide-ranging recommendations for changes to the legislation six years ago. A year later, it said the homicide law was a"rickety structure set upon shaky foundations", governed by rules set, in some cases, as long ago as the 17th-century. The law could not be stated with "clarity or certainty", it added.

In a further review, published in 2006, the commission suggested the three-tier system, which won support from Mr Starmer's predecessor, Sir Ken MacDonald QC.

Sir Ken, who handed over to Mr Starmer in 2008, said yesterday it would be helpful in dealing with so-called joint enterprise cases, such as gang killings where the degree of culpability varies.

It would, for example, allow flexibility for prosecutors and the courts in cases where a group of people are involved in an assault that leads to a death but only one landed the fatal blow.

Mr MacDonald said: "Any of us think that that's an aspect of the law which needs reforming, that we should have degrees of murder, rather in the way they do in the US. First-degree murder would be killing with the intention to kill, second-degree would be killing with intention to do grievous bodily harm."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "The Government is aware of the recommendations put forward in the Law Commission's report on murder, which we will consider."

In July, it emerged that Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, was "sympathetic" to a reform of the law of murder.

Justice Minister Lord McNally told peers at House of Lords question time that the Government was "mindful" of the recommendations of a Law Commission report which suggested a system of first and second degree murder.

"This is one of the issues that the Government will be looking at in its review of sentencing policy in general," Lord McNally said.

He said the report put forward a range of alternatives which would give "a degree of flexibility to the judiciary when dealing with this matter".

"I do know that, in looking at the matter, the Lord Chancellor is sympathetic to the line taken by the Law Commission," he said.

He added that the previous government had brought forward some "part proposals" from the report and the new administration was "now looking at this with some urgency".

Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a crossbench peer and former law lord, had told him that reform of the law of murder was "now long overdue". "It is the mandatory life sentence which distorts this branch of the law and stands in the way of much-needed reform," he said.

He asked Lord McNally: "Are you aware of any other country, whether in Europe or the Commonwealth, which has a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment in all cases of murder, including cases of mercy killing?"

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