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But David Cameron's official spokesman said the prime minister did not believe mandatory life sentences were outdated.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 201.

    #198 - Yes really as the UK only ratified the 6th protocol of the ECHR (prohibiting capital punishment) on 20th May 1998 . Even then there was an exception "in time or imminent threat of war".

    On 10 October 2003 the UK acceded to the 13th protocol meaning we can't reintroduce the death penalty unless we withdraw from the Council of Europe.

    I have no knowledge of the bye-laws of York.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    193.Rebecca Riot

    Arnold55555 my old friend, Canterbury sounds scary, as does Ms Riot.

    Be careful out there

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    "you can shoot a Scotsman within the city of York with a bow & arrow"

    Now you tell me!!! I was in york a few years ago!
    Thank God I was not wearing my kilt. lol :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    #194 Not really. The sentence remained on the statute books but it couldn't have been carried out as our membership of the EU superseded the law. Its like the dubious claim that you can shoot a Scotsman within the city of York with a bow & arrow. Any medieval law allowing that has been superseded by more recent murder laws that over rule any local law.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    139. Mark_from_Manchester - Just look at this latest one, a woman jailed for 10 years for stabbing her husband to death over a row on which TV channel to watch. Why is that only 10 years, the system is mad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    re180 inchindown2

    thank the lord we are to lily livered to execute.Can you imagine how many innocent men south wales police would have sent to the gallows with their arms length list of miscarriages of justice.
    they sent three men to prison for the murder of lynette white to name but one of many.they may well have been executed before their acquittal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    The Daily Mail reading public just want everyone hanged. Immigrants, murderers, everybody in Europe.

    What a joke.

    No thinking really happens in the brain of the average British person, just anger and revenge.

    Your education has made you stupid, and stupid you remain. Then you can be ruled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    174 - " actual abolition in 1969 after the final ratification of the Murder Act (1965)."

    Actually capital punishment wasn't finally abolished in the UK until 1998; Until the following dates, the death penalty existed for;

    1971 - arson in a Naval dockyard
    1973 - murder in Northern Ireland
    1981 - espionage
    1998 - piracy with violence, treason and certain miliary offences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    @Arnold and Frank and Toms Dad

    The ducking at Canterbury is just for men and carried out by women. You will have to wait in line with the rest. Lots of naughty who men need a duck. Stops them doing naughty things. Next stop is the stocks in market square for second offence. Eggs and cabbages. Archbish officiates giving the women his blessing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    I don't see the problem you commit murder you get the rope or the chopper or the chari or the needle but you get one of them no faffing around . And IF you are determined not to do the correct thing and bring back the death sentence then let LIFE == LIFE the whole of it no early get out parole nothing until the day you kick the can

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Although judges have the authority to make case law, when it comes to making statute law their opinions ought to be no more important to politicians than anybody else's. So I feel that if judges want to debate possible changes to statute law, they should do so in a purely personal capacity only.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    I doubt that anyone would argue that a mandatory life sentence is not justified for deliberate murder. The problem is that, because of the European Court, the term "life sentence" no longer has any meaning. To be sentenced to life imprisonment is probably an infringement of a murderer's rights!

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    181.Rebecca Riot

    5 Minutes ago

    If you were living in such a country Ms Riot, you would be stoned for speaking out. Do you understand your own rhetoric?

    Frank and Tom do agree, as it's not me that told them, it's history, as for the treatment of women, that is a totally different subject, unrelated to this discussion. For the record, I agree with you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    187 I apologise for the flippancy of some of my comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    As the parent of a murdered child I don't support the death penalty but do support the life sentence. Judges already set a tariff, which is the number of years the murderer will serve in prison before being considered for release. Consequently, they already have the ability to consider each sentence on the severity, or otherwise, of the case. Many tariffs are already too short!

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Perhaps now is the time to look at assisted suicide, where the murdered has made an informed and declared statement that if their condition gets to a certain point, they no longer wish to be alive.
    Then, the brave people who assist a loved one, in what some might see as the greatest act of mercy, bring to a close the suffering of their loved one.
    A lot of work needs to be done to enable such acts

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    122. coyb1530 - Absolutely - if we'd been able to execute the Birmingham 6 then they would never have been able to murder again ! Err, hold on a minute.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Lord Judge suggests that we reform the law of murder to make it clearer who is and who is not a murderer. That's fine as long as there is no dumbing down. But if someone is guilty of murder, then a life sentence it should be. The problem is that keeping someone locked up is very expensive, and we can't afford to keep people locked up for 50 years or more. No easy answer to this one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Motivated by an old-fashioned sense of chivalry, you understand, I would venture that ladies should be spared the death penalty. How about public spanking?

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.


    8 Minutes ago

    175 Rebecca

    Best offer I've had all day.


    Are you allowed to duck in public by the bridge?


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