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But David Cameron's official spokesman said the prime minister did not believe mandatory life sentences were outdated.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 141.

    What was so bad about the ducking stool?

  • Comment number 140.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    I suspect that Lord Judge wants laws that are in step with "his" opinion, not the publics.

    Otherwise, a life sentence would mean life in prison, not 10 years that most "lifers" serve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.


    "Murders halved with the abolition of the death penalty."

    Not ridiculous at all and on the public record. Argued and proven by statistics and evidence for the Act of Parliament, 1950, thus changing the law. This is historical fact if you care to look it up. I did not invent it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    People are so enthusiastic to lock people for years. Great, so the murderer loses their liberty but they can still vote, watch TV, get a degree while getting free board and lodging.

    Personally I would much prefer the £500+ it cost per week go to the victims of the crime.

    A simple lobotomy would ensure a murderer was no longer a risk while allowing them to something useful like cleaning graffiti

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    The judiciary has a terrible reputation for being antiquated, slow, ineffectual and often out of touch with general public opinion. In turn they complain that the general public are often wrong like thinking the law is more lenient when statistically it is not. What do they expect when they always use the term life sentence even for say 14 years minimum? It gets peoples backs up straight away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    @134 Perhaps you should take more care when reading.

    Maybe time to get glasses??

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    118 where is your evidence that doctors are letting people die so they can harvest organs.

    the terminally ill have to leave the country in order that loved ones can help them die without fear of prosecution.

    they changed the organ donation laws recently but you can still choose to opt out, doesn’t really sound like much of a conspiracy to me

    maybe time to take off the tin foil hat?

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.


    Chopping things off was very popular in Sierra Leone, but that was to corner the dirty diamond market for Mugabe and his like.

    Fortunately the UK moved on from amputation as a punishment about 500 years ago. The uncivilised world, including the stripy tea towel, turban, and Arabian Nights pantomime brigade, now needs to catch up, Libya gives us hope but not so Iran.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    It's possibly the most complex and morally difficult matter of law and the complexity of the law reflects that. Like all matters of judgement in a civilised society, not often does one size fit all.

    In saying that, if the law was black and white, would a perpetrator commit an act when sure there would be only one outcome from their actions?


  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    @90 Rebecca Riot: " It was discovered that murders were on the increase because the murderers wanted to commit suicide by the state executing them, not being brave enough to commit suicide by themselves.

    Abolition of the death penalty halved murders & reduced suicides. The opportunity of state execution now being removed."

    This is ridiculous. Where did you get your information?

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    @123 - I'm not criticising anyone just pointing out what a load of arbitrary rubbish the idea of rights in this circumstance is.

    As it happens close relatives have both worked and suffered under the NHS guidelines for care.

    I also never said I should get to decide, I'm happy for the Judiciary to make the decisions, being that they have the experts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.


    The situation described in post 74 was similiar to one in the Falklands conflict (I heard off), Argentinian POW mine clearing was caught in a fire & no-one could get to him - he was shot & the UK sergeant who was prosecuted but vindicated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    108.Rebecca Riot

    I agree with you on both points. Unfortunately we don't seem to be in the majority, or have those views shared by most politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    108. you can never be sure that everyone you convict of murder is guilty, its rare but miscarriages of justice do happen (look at the Jill Dando murder trial for a recent example).

    personally i would rather imprison because you can correct mistakes.

    If you execute a murderer, then find out you were wrong, you can’t take it back

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    As a juror you are told to decide a case on the same bases as you would an important decision in your life.

    However they then say you can’t use the internet to research information – I can’t imagine making any important decision without using Google to help me understand the background information.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    @101 It is because the judges have applied common sense before that we have such a messed up complicated system surrounding manslaughter. They would shunt stuff under manslaughter and bend the rules as much as possible in order to avoid the mandatory life sentence. Unfortunately, this is only a temporary fix and gets worse with time as the law becomes more complicated. An overhaul is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    @I love Tuesdays

    "We don't do religion. Thank God"

    I thank God but not the God who orders the murdering. Taliban and chums. He is a different God guy and definitely does not live in heaven, more like hell. Archbish Williams has said so and I believe him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    #118 are you a doctor or work in intensive care? If not I'd suggest your comments about 'why lay people shouldn't be allowed to decide...' are more than a little hypocritical. In addition I can't work out where you stand. You claim that people on life support have no right to life, then criticise doctors for turning off life support... make your mind up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    109. Rebecca Riot - I take your point but you have to admit it is very difficult to pick locks, commit robbery or even steal a car if you have lost your hands. I would even extend (pun) that further and cut off the rape offenders appendage.


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