Lord Chief Justice urges free vote on murder reform

Lord Justice Judge Lord Judge was keen to emphasise that changing the law was a matter for Parliament

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The Lord Chief Justice has said he would like a free vote in Parliament on the reform of murder laws.

The comments from the most senior judge in England and Wales came after a panel of legal experts said the current law treated mercy killers on the same basis as serial killers.

But David Cameron's official spokesman said the prime minister did not believe mandatory life sentences were outdated.

Lord Judge also said he had discussed the abuse of parliamentary privilege.

He said he had met the Commons speaker, John Bercow, and was asked about MPs and peers mentioning in Parliament matters which were covered by legal orders, such as John Hemming naming footballer Ryan Giggs despite a super-injunction protecting his private life.

Individual crimes

A Downing Street spokesman said: "We have no plans to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder. The prime minister has always been very clear that serious complaints require serious punishments."

The Homicide Review Advisory Group, made up of judges, academics and former QCs, said the system did not work.

The group said the system did not allow for sentences to match individual crimes.

The mandatory life sentence replaced the death penalty in 1965.

'Fiendishly difficult'

Lord Judge said piecemeal reform did not work and it was important the law was in step with public opinion.

He said careful reform of the "fiendishly difficult" murder laws could improve public confidence without the need to scrap mandatory life sentences.


The law of murder covers a broad range of killings. It covers instances where there is an intention to kill, and where there is an intention to cause serious harm. Two very different degrees of culpability.

A person can also be found guilty of murder if they are part of a 'joint enterprise'. For instance if someone is part of a group that surrounds another person and a member of the group takes out a knife and kills.

All of this led the Law Commission to describe the homicide law as "a rickety structure set upon shaky foundations".

Anyone convicted of murder currently receives a mandatory life sentence. Many, including the Law Commission, favour a move to a more US-style system where there are degrees of murder which carry different sentences.

So, a murderer who plans and intends to kill would receive a mandatory life sentence, whereas discretionary life sentences would be available for someone who intends only to harm, or someone who is part of a group but doesn't wield the fatal blow.

He said the Law Commission produced a "provocative but very interesting" review five years ago, but the Labour government failed to act on it.

Lord Judge said: "It seems to me, perhaps the real problem is with the law of murder itself.

"It's particularly difficult and troublesome when more than one person is said to be involved, a joint enterprise murder.

"Who is guilty of murder when four people, three people, surround somebody? The one who kicks, the one who suddenly produces the knife - the offensive weapon that causes the death - the one who eggs on the one who's got the knife, the one who says to him, 'For God's sake...'?" he added.

He said: "It's complicated too by the various defences. These are all extremely complicated when they're put together in the one case."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "Murder is the most serious crime on the book and it's right that it carries the most serious penalty.

"There is a long-established belief that if you take someone's life you should face a life sentence. The public have not moved from this position."

Earlier the Homicide Review Advisory Group said a so-called mercy killing attracted the same mandatory life penalty as serial killings and it said it wanted sentencing for murder to be discretionary.

Its report builds on research published last year which claimed the public may support reforming the penalty for murder to make life imprisonment the maximum sentence rather than mandatory.


The report claims that "with appropriate education" the public could develop "in the general direction long-favoured by legal experts and the judiciary".

A prison door Mandatory life sentences for murder replaced the death penalty in 1965

But Peter Neyroud, a former chief constable and a former member of the sentencing guidelines council, said: "The public were very confused about murder sentencing and in fact regularly thought that the sentences for murder were too lenient, so I'm not sure that you can then leap to the conclusion that they're then ready for what would be quite a dramatic... and I suspect viewed as a reduction in seriousness."

The Homicide Review Advisory Group claim the mandatory life sentence was a compromise arrived at to ensure the abolition of the death penalty made its way through both Houses of Parliament.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke recently announced plans to extend mandatory life sentences for many other crimes as part of a plan to abolish indeterminate sentences.

During his annual press briefing Lord Judge discussed several areas of the law:

  • He said he had discussed with the Speaker several instances of MPs and peers using parliamentary privilege to break legal orders but denied he was "interfering" in parliamentary affairs.
  • He said he "personally" had no problem with allowing television cameras into the sentencing phase of criminal trials but said it would require an Act of Parliament.
  • He spoke out against jurors searching for information on the internet and said they should "honour the oath" they had sworn.
  • He said he would be issuing guidance before Christmas on the use of Twitter in court.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Interesting comments keep disappearing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    re74 manya

    One hell of a situation to be found in!
    If you get caught with an illegal firearm in the UK then you're looking at a mandatory sentence of 5or7years anyway.
    There is no simple one size fits all approach to sentencing and I reckon you'd have hell of a time convincing me that this was the only option you had.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    A far far bigger problem with trials we see reported is the utter irrelevant drivel allowed to be used as supposed 'evidence' Which largely seem to comprise of nothing more than blackening the accused name rather than a single thing that shows them Doing anything. DNA on clothes means the clothes came into contact with the DNA, nothing about any action, or how it got there. Worthless But allowed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    @100 & 111

    I think you need to read what you wrote again ... they kill them (state sanctioned murder/mercy killing) after they have taken the organs because they don't want to waste resources keeping someone alive that they 'believe' wont recover.

    Oh, but the march of technology............................

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Not sure where you get your information from; the death penalty was abolished in 1965, murder rates did not soar in the 50's and the murder rate did not drop after the abolishment of capital punishment.

    Do stay on topic - your agenda is showing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    You only have to read some of these comments to understand why the public need better education about the law relating to murder. Personally, I think judges should have discretion to give a lesser sentence in exceptional circumstances i.e. when there are factors that mitigate the crime. That is what happens for other crimes and makes justice fairer, in my opinion.

  • Comment number 115.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Life imprisonment for murder! What's the point? Bring back Capital Punishment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.


    We don't do religion.

    Thank God!

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    #107 I can accept shooting an intruder as they break in and threaten you but shooting them AS THEY RUN AWAY is not self defence by any definition. The other issue would be 'shooting'? With what? An illegally held shotgun like Tony Martin used? He should have got 5 years for the firearms offence alone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    96 so doctors are letting patients die so they can harvest their organs?

    that is simply not true. In fact there are very stringent protocols which have to be followed before a time of death can be declared.

    Why do you think terminally ill people such as Terry Pratchett have to make specific preparations for someone to help them die when their quality of life falls below a certain level?

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    re 101. Yes it is. any police are so intent on meeting targets that they will arrest and charge innocent people, vital evidence missing which would prove this in certain cases. The police themselves are exempt from any crimal charges from speeding at 150mph on motorway when they are not even on duty to the collapsed trial [would not get fair hearing!!] What about solicitors who are protected too

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Luther Wesley Baxter

    Are you an American??

    Biblical judgements, quoting medieval texts as sensible law is the route to Iran and other diabolical places. Taliban, God is great!! Whilst blazing away with a gun. There is no room for such stuff here thank you, sir.

    Mrs Palin is likely to agree with you. Hence the injury of Mrs Gifford.
    God bless the pipelines??

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    To be clear, I do not believe in the sanctity of every individual life.

    1) A mercy killing is not murder.

    2) There is nothing to be gained by keeping the most cold blooded murderers and rapists alive. If convicted they will die in prison anyway. Why create a deeply unhealthy, isolated microcosm in which to maintain their existence? Why not just cleanly extinguish them? Why preserve a monster?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    re62 arnold

    different types of murder

    I to find it hard to believe that people struggle with the concept of different types of murder.Clearly the average british citizen is never to be trusted with important decisions.thank the lord for the political classes.
    how can anyone not tell the difference between doing a harold shipman to shooting an intruder in the back as they are fleeing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    "Surely only cold blooded killings qualify for the murder conviction"

    Could I trouble you to read post 74 and respond, because it is murder but not depending on ones view. I posted it to get folk thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    @97 Mayna

    Exactly, no one has a right to a transplant, and the Doctors basically decide who will and who wont get one if one becomes available.

    Many people through age and/or lifestyle have no chance of ever getting a transplant.

    Private system ... Rights = how much cash you have.
    Can't pay the electricity, bad luck!

    No one has the right to make you pay to keep them alive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Cold blooded, premeditated killings (murder) deserve a minimum of a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
    the rest should be judged case by case, simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Another ploy to free up the prison system and avoid the cost of building new one, as these people dont live in rough areas and council estates then the law should remain the same and you get life - becausewhen the violent prisioners are freed they dont to have to live with them........

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    We have murder and manslaughter. Surely only cold blooded killings qualify for the murder conviction, in which case the mandatory life sentence is a just sentence and should not be messed with by anyone. If a killing isn't murder it shouldn't be tried as murder.


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