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Law Reform: Murder

Volume 720: debated on Monday 12 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will bring forward proposals for reforming the law of murder.

My Lords, we are mindful of the recommendations of the Law Commission’s report, Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide. This is one of the issues at which the Government will be looking in their review of sentencing policy in general.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he accept, as I think he does, that reform of the law of murder is now long overdue? If so, I have two questions for him. First, is he aware of any other country, whether in Europe or the Commonwealth, that has a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment in all cases of murder, including, for example, cases of mercy killing? Secondly, does he agree that it is the mandatory sentence which distorts this branch of the law and stands in the way of much needed reform?

My Lords, I would not presume to give my own judgment on that, but I suspect that the noble and learned Lord is right that there are few precedents for that very broad sweep of our law. He is also right to say that the Law Commission's report puts forward a variety of alternatives which would give a degree of flexibility to the judiciary when dealing with this matter. I know that the Lord Chancellor is sympathetic to the line taken by the Law Commission. It is a matter of consulting and then finding time to bring forward proposals on the second part of the commission's report. As the noble and learned Lord knows, the previous Administration brought forward partial proposals, and we are now looking at the matter with a sense of urgency.

My Lords, the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House on Medical Ethics, which I was privileged to chair, strongly recommended that the mandatory life sentence for murder should be abolished and that judges should be given some degree of flexibility, because we had reported to us 23 cases where family members had ended the life of a loved one suffering from a painful terminal illness. In every case, a charge of murder was originally proposed, but in all but one of them, the charge was amended either to attempted murder or to manslaughter because it was felt that no jury would be likely to convict. Is it not time, therefore, for the position to be revised?

My Lords, the short answer is yes. Such strong recommendations from a Select Committee carry weight, but we must be careful to ensure that in addressing the issue of the mandatory sentence for murder, we do not slip into other issues which have caused problems, such as mercy killing and euthanasia, which I think need to be considered separately as a matter of law.

My Lords, in the light of the coalition's new enthusiasm for referenda and its desire to consult the people about changes in the law, will the Government be holding a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty?

Does the Minister recall that the recommendations from the Law Commission on the disposals for child homicides found that an adult with a mental age of 10 was treated more leniently than a child aged 10? Will he look carefully at that matter in his considerations?

I can assure the noble Earl that we will. It is a broad issue where the groundwork has been done by the Law Commission. I know that the Lord Chancellor is taking a close personal interest in the matter. We will be bringing forward precise proposals to Parliament in the near future.

When does the Minister think that he can come forward with definitive proposals? We cannot kick this into the long grass; we must have a definite date. Is the Minister inclined to venture an opinion as to when it is appropriate?

My Lords, I am looking across at some very distinguished former members of the team at the Ministry of Justice, and I am sure that not one of them would have given the kind of precise date that the noble Lord asks for. As for kicking it into the long grass, that is simply not our intention.

I was a member of the committee on murder set up more than 20 years ago in this House. Our recommendations were not implemented. Without going into the details of any case, will the Government now take it as an urgent priority to amend the law on murder?

The Minister will recall that the piecemeal reform of the law of provocation carried out by the previous Government was described by the Law Commission as “bizarre”. Will he assure us that if there is a reform of the law of murder, it will be done as a whole?

Yes, although certain provisions of the Coroners and Justice Act will come into force this October.