Careful reform of the “fiendishly difficult” murder law is needed to help stop a “sense of injustice” over life sentences, the most senior judge in England and Wales has claimed.
The Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge said proposals for a US-style system of first and second degree murder seven years ago were “provocative but very interesting”, but successive governments had failed to act.
He stopped short of publicly backing the move, but yesterday said the law needed to “keep in step with public opinion” and called for MPs to be given a free vote on the issue.
A change would mean an end to mandatory life terms for all murderers, a move called for by legal experts on the Homicide Review Advisory Group. The judges, academics and former QCs said neither mandatory sentences nor the system for setting minimum terms allowed for sentences to match individual cases.
A so-called mercy killing attracts the same mandatory life penalty as serial killings, the group said.
Lord Judge said: “It seems to me perhaps the real problem is with the law of murder itself. I would have thought myself that a careful reform, or consideration of reform of the law of murder, might reduce the call for the automatic sentence to be removed.”
He added: “If the whole law of murder were looked at, that might very well address the question of whether or not those who are asking for the automatic sentence to be removed would have their biggest concerns allayed.
“I’m not actually expressing a view either way whether more people should be caught or fewer people should be caught. What I’m saying is it’s fiendishly difficult. The end result may not always seem to John and Jane citizen to be the right result when set against all the other cases of murder.
“I wasn’t suggesting the current law doesn’t embrace people correctly, or does embrace people correctly, I’m just saying it’s extremely complicated as it is.”
Lord Judge added that any discussion around the murder laws was “highly political”, adding: “For everyone who says no automatic life imprisonment, there’s another who says capital punishment.”
Speaking at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, he said: “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...’.
“It is one thing to be party to punching somebody, quite another to be party to using a potentially lethal weapon on them.”
He added: “But it’s complicated too by the various defences. These are all extremely complicated when they’re put together in the one case.”