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But David Cameron's official spokesman said the prime minister did not believe mandatory life sentences were outdated.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 261.

    259. theilliberal
    "There's plenty of murders featured in the news, often sadistic and prolonged, I can't imagine the dread & desperation the victim goes through, where do they figure in these highbrow ethical debates?"
    You really don't know?

    The victims are the reason the sentences are severe.

    Next inane question...

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    Courts should be televised.Just like televised parliment,the ordanary person watching will want the courts to change towards a more american style.Wig`s and gowns don`t make for a fair trial and old fashioned practice should end as they are sillly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    There's plenty of murders featured in the news, often sadistic and prolonged, I can't imagine the dread & desperation the victim goes through, where do they figure in these highbrow ethical debates?

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    I want the death penalty for murder but of course to take into account possible mistakes i'd say a minimum of 20 years in prison before it's carried out or perhaps only have the death penalty for multiple murders or in cases of absolute certainty such as when a murder's caught on CCTV

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    If part of the reform includes life sentences for "causing death by dangerous/wreckless driving" I'm all for it. Current punishments are a farce.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    "British people were lied to by the then Labour govt over the removal of the UK death penalty- which in fact was then rarely used and was in fact just a deterrent- that worked the UK homicide rate increased alarmingly after it was abolished. HANG EM HIGH"
    Look at the number of people found guilty of murder only to be later found to be totally innocent. You can't reprieve the dead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    There are plenty of defences to murder that mean you are guilty of manslaughter not murder. Diminshed responsibility (abused spouse who cracks) loss of control (person who goes to far tragically but didnt intend to kill) legally via intention or otherwise (mercy killings) self defence which also results in acquittal. If these defences are rejected it is murder, justifiably punishable only by life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    In a simple world, life should mean just that. The Judge should then set a minimum time before the prisoner can be considered for parol. That minimum time should vary according with the circumstances of the murder together with the murderer's mental condition (a psychopath?) and future danger to the public taken into account.
    Posting 250 from Tim sadly but clearly states things are not so simple

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    Bit of liberal-esque rating going on with the comments.Seems having an opinion other than that endorsed by the penal reform or Amnesty International brigade doesnt sit well on here.Well ladies and gentlemen,theres been a good forty-odd years of advancing the liberal ideal.As coppers will tell you,offenders have,do and always will find your compassion hysterically unfathomable and hugely welcome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    Lord Judge has always been a maverick and clearly he is testing public reaction again. There should be 1st and 2nd degree Murder or Homicide. Premeditated Murder should carry a whole life sentence, second degree would be where matters got out of control but someone died. The punishment should fit the circumstances with a minimum given by the Judge as now. Parole Boards are a waste of time as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Bring back the Noose

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    When you have a loved one whose body is wracked with cancer and is in complete anguish... when this loved one is intermittently delirius and vomiting fecal fluid... when even your priest agrees with you that this is a life that should be mercifully terminated but cannot be… you get a new perspective on this subject. And you realize that this is NOT a simple question with simple solutions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    I have never been in the dreadful position of #248. I agree with him; assisted suicide or similar is not murder. That's what the Law and the courts are for. Those who help a dying friend for the best of reasons should not face trial; equally those whose crimes are heinous should not expect future freedom. Give courts full powers to fit punishment to the crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    Some years ago my sick (not terminally) late father repeatedly begged me to help him die. I took the coward's way out, not the right one, and he suffered on for several years. I told him that because of the, in my opinion, immoral laws of our country I would be found guilty of murder (it would have been obvious) and condemned to many years in prison. Mercy killing is not murder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Most people do not know the difference between manslaughter and murder. What many people consider should be manslaughter is murder in law. Any act that a resonable person could see could kill is murder if the person dies... and if an act is premeditated, such as planning the eventual killing of an abusive partner - that's classed as murder too. It's all this that should be changed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    British people were lied to by the then Labour govt over the removal of the UK death penalty - which in fact was then rarely used and was in fact just a deterrent - that worked - as the UK homicide rate increased alarmingly after it was abolished. Labour govt promised to look at this again & never did - need DP again now - too many hideous crimes & so many useless judges is pathetic - HANG EM HIGH

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    have a referendum on the death penalty and life means life let the public have a say

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    Interesting march of events the past few decades,generally it seems in the direction that fewer and fewer despicable/horrific offences,knowingly committed,are being deemed worthy of warranting punishment befitting the crime.Just what will warrant punishment in the future?Or will it pan out that everyone is a victim,there are no criminals,just those who are misunderstood,made so by fate. *sigh*

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    Sentences for murder need to be tougher not more lenient. A so called life sentence is only 7 years as it is. That's 3 and a half when they get the mandatory time off. Are we going to scrap that too as unfair? Maybe the answer is to adopt the american 1st degree and 2nd degree murder and manslaughter charges. Then theres room for differences in intent and premeditation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    Sad to see that sone people have no idea how one becomes the lord chief justice ,the honourable lord judge is one of the most astute and knowledgeable judges this country has ever had ,his comments reflect widely held opinions that all murders are not the same and judges need more discretion in sentencing


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