Pressure grows for reform of murder law

by Ian Dunt

The pressure for Britain’s murder law to become more flexible is growing, after the second director of public prosecutions (DPP) in a row came out in favour of reform.

Keir Starmer told the BBC he would welcome a change so that the law recognised first and second degree murder, as it does in the United States.

First degree murder with intent to kill would carry a life sentence, while second degree murder, with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and manslaughter would both carry a discretionary life sentence.

Some legal experts argue that the present law prevents juries from ascribing relative levels of culpability, with some holding back on a murder sentence because of their view of the defendant’s intent.

“It is not just a question of people who are not guilty being convicted, there is a risk that people who are guilty will be acquitted of murder,” said Sir Ken McDonald, Mr Starmer’s predecessor and another proponent of reform

“My sense is that a lot of juries who instinctively kick against the idea that someone should be convicted of murder with a mandatory life sentence, if they intend less than killing.

“It should be fair, it should be firm and it should be explicable. I don’t think that we are presently achieving those qualities in our homicide law.”

Sir Ken argued that a change in the law would come in useful when engaged in joint enterprise cases – common in gang related crimes – where all parties to an act are charged with the crime. The law allows for the lookout during a murder to also be charged with murder, despite not killing anyone themselves.

Sir Ken said: “I think if you had those sorts of categories, it would be much easier to look at a joint enterprise case and describe particular roles and particular degrees of culpability to individual defendants, rather than sweeping up perhaps large numbers of people who in some cases might have been fairly peripheral to the enterprise.

A 2006 review into murder proposed a three tier system of first degree, second degree and manslaughter but the government stopped short of implementing its findings, and introduced new laws of provocation and some changes to the law on diminished responsibility instead.

The coalition government said it is considering recommendations on the issue.