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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Should murder laws be reformed?
Murder scene with forensics and police
A group of legal advisers to the government has proposed that the law on murder in England and Wales should be changed.

The Law Commission says there is wide support among criminal justice professionals to end the mandatory life sentence for murder.

And instead different kinds of murders could be "graded".

But the Home Office says life sentences will remain mandatory as courts already have sentencing flexibility through imposing minimum terms.

Is a review of the law necessary? What are your views on murders being "graded" to recognise the seriousness of the offence?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:

This topic was suggested by Gerry Brown, Ireland:
Do the murder laws need to be reconsidered?

Murder rates rising year after year after year means that either the death penalty needs to be restored or life means life with no parole. Once again bleeding heart liberals are helping to weaken the law on this. Enough is enough.
P K Van der Byl, Salisbury

Many comments here seem to come from people who assume that THEY would never be the criminal. Sadly our prisons hold many people who thought that way right up until the instant when everything went wrong - when a minor argument led to a heat attack, or a legitimate act of self-defence against a thug went that one blow too far. As a law-abiding person myself, I just hope that I will never be one of them.
Rob S, Coventry

Why don't we have a general amnesty and release all but the most hardcore prisoners with immediate effect? After all why delay the inevitable?
Ralph, London

I have done 20 years with the police. I sometimes think I am wasting my time. All these do-gooders who feel sorry for the criminals. Murder is murder & should mean life. 50 years minimum & no early release. We are far too soft on the criminal fraternity.
Doug Brown, Essex, England.

I thought that our criminal justice system has two things to consider - punishment and rehabilitation. When convicted of murder, therefore, there should surely be an element of flexibility with respect to sentencing i.e. where the crime itself carries a set term, and there is then either an additional term or a reduction in term to take into account the fact that time has to be allowed for the individual to be rehabilitated. People cannot just be locked up for life - if our system is not about rehabilitation and only about punishment then we may as well reintroduce the death penalty and give people the option of spending the rest of their days in a cell or ending it sooner rather than later.
Jimi, Windsor, UK

I'd like to see killers sentenced on the consequences of their crime rather than absolute outcome
Martin, Northern England
I'd like to see killers sentenced on the consequences of their crime rather than absolute outcome. For instance, a person who gets drunk, steals a car and kills a pedestrian should have the consequences of their actions taken into account more.
Martin, Northern England

Child murders should be dealt with the severest of punishments, closely followed by murders of an outstandingly sadistic/cruel nature. Others should be judged according to individual circumstances. All sentences should be tougher though.
Claire, UK

If you are going to commit a crime, why not commit murder or rape? At least you'd get a shorter sentence than if you committed arson or robbery. As long as the justice system favours property over people, then 'grades' of murder are going to make the UK criminal justice system more of a laughing stock then it already is.
Angela, Leeds, UK

Archaic laws administered by people out of touch with reality combined with a severe lack of common-sense makes our judicial system what it is today. It's so complicated that we need a plethora of judges, lawyers, barristers and legal eagles just to help us interpret it, and I'm not convinced even they understand it properly.
Steve, London

Make sure that the new prisons are as basic as possible
Richard, London, England
Murder should be punished by life imprisonment which actually literally means for the rest of the murderer's life. No parole, no time off for good behaviour and this should be clearly stated beforehand so criminals are aware of consequences for them. More prisons should be built if necessary and if they want to save costs make sure that the new prisons are as basic as possible. Manslaughter (excluding causing death accidentally) should be punished by minimum of 10 years with no parole. Criminals have to be aware that if they take a life they will be punished severely, not be out of prison and leading a normal life after four years. This seems like common sense to me but does anyone in authority actually listen?
Richard, London, England

Why are the British always meddling with their legal system? First they want to get rid of jury trials, now they try to redefine murder. Less tinkering might be better - less hot air wasted.
Jeff, Cleveland, USA

If you abuse your life by taking someone else's then you should have your own life taken. I think this is the best solution for all parties. The criminal is no longer a danger to society, a burden on taxpayers, a burden on prisons and don't have to waste their life in confinement. A harsh punishment would also deter crime in the first place.
Andy, London

There should be one crime only in this context: unlawful killing. The gravity and nature of the crime can then be dealt with by the severity of sentencing, eliminating the difference between murder, manslaughter and unlawful killing. It would also make it possible to deal appropriately with drivers who kill other road users and pedestrians - currently sentences in this area are generally derisory
Roger Haydon, Gateshead, UK

If we lived in a true democracy the people would be given a chance to decide what should be the sentence for murder. I think we all know that would mean a return of capital punishment.
Chris, Sussex

Judges should be held more accountable
Deb Tonge, Bolton, UK
I think a review of the law would be good. Although every case is different depending upon who is involved and the circumstances, there must be several "types" of murders that can be classified, each having it's own fixed guidelines as to what type and length of punishment is fitting. I also think that there should be less room for punishments to be altered at the discretion of the judge and that judges should be held more accountable, they could be monitored to ensure unbiased sentencing.
Deb Tonge, Bolton, UK

Murder is Murder is Murder! When are we going to stop re-arranging the system to be soft on the criminal because that is what the left-wing liberal judges ultimately want. Life should mean life that is the only change that should be made. Violent crime is up and it will continue that way unless the system starts to be tough on criminals.
Iain Jamieson, Edinburgh

The current law (Offences against the Person Act) about murder dates from 1861, and the accepted definition of it dates from about 1701. Most trials in this area are conducted by reference to past decisions, rather than the Act itself. Its high time that the Act was updated, or at least reviewed and Parliament allowed to bring the topic into the 21st century and out of the 19th.
Simon, UK

I believe the jury should have a say in the sentencing.
T Newman, Bournemouth UK
It's OK to review the law on murder and manslaughter. But I believe the jury should have a say in the sentencing. The public would then feel the punishment fits the crime.
T Newman, Bournemouth UK

How can anyone say that to abduct someone and murder them is the same as killing someone if they break into your house and are holding a knife or gun to your throat threatening to kill you or your family? I wonder how these people that think "murder is murder, regardless of the circumstance" would react in a similar kind of situation.
Bob, UK

I feel that the current sentencing system needs a big reform. I do not feel that the sentences for what you consider general murders are hard enough to act as a deterrent. Take other countries for example such as Bangkok, you get life imprisonment there if you are dealing drugs! I agree that there should also be some reform in the way judges make their decisions and we need a level of consistency among them.
Ricky, London

Just a comment from "across the pond;" In the US we still have the death penalty in some States and, of course, there is much controversy regarding this. However, as for murder itself, it is only Just and fair that the severity of punishment be determined based on the factors involved leading up to the "murder," the nature of the murder itself, and the mental and emotional state of the person who committed the murder at the time. For cold and calculated premeditated murder committed by someone in full possession of their faculties then I am fine with the death sentence even let alone mandatory life imprisonment, however, there are so many situations where this is not the case. These factors, and others, must be considered in a truly just society. The goal of Law is to safeguard society and to dispense Justice, not just to react out of fear and vengeance.
John, NJ, USA

Judges should be given greater flexibility in sentencing.
Glen Pickard, London UK
Ray from Stockport is misinformed about the murder law. At present a person is guilty of murder if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they acted with malice aforethought, i.e. that they either intended to kill or cause grievous bodily harm. It is important that any changes to the current law are done after careful consideration, not a knee-jerk reaction to one case. Rather than change the definition of murder, Judges should be given greater flexibility in sentencing, rather than having to impose a mandatory life sentence. Deaths caused by reckless driving should be treated as manslaughter, with increased sentences.
Glen Pickard, London UK

Killings of different types either need to be classified, or judges need to show some common sense. The mild-mannered man who fights for his life against an armed attacker and ends up standing over a dead body should not find himself punished for it unless it can be shown that he himself acted beyond the instinct to incapacitate his opponent. Accidents happen; not every death must be blamed on someone.
Richard, Sheffield, UK

Driving while disqualified or under the influence of drugs or alcohol and killing a child, might not be considered as murder by law, but surely the parents would have a different opinion on it?
Gabi, St Albans

Yes murders should be graded and so should manslaughter as well. Drunk drivers and joy riders know that what they do is wrong. They may not intentionally set out to kill someone but they know that their actions make this a high probability. These actions are very close to murder. Manslaughter verdicts in such cases should reflect this.
Lewis, UK

The introduction of 'grades' would not be in society's best interest.
'Richard', Beckenham, Kent
The introduction of 'grades' would not be in society's best interest. How would such a system work? On a points basis, perhaps? That would open the floodgates for 'legal' challenges that would add considerable time and cost to the process, with lawyers the only beneficiaries. Why not take a lesson from Islam? Victims families are often given a say in the level of sentencing to be imposed.
'Richard', Beckenham, Kent

For rape and murder, the judicial system should consider rehabilitation as a viable option (with a lengthy punishment as well, of course), and execution for second time offenders. Everyone can make a mistake, but it makes me sick when someone is attacked by a criminal who has been in jail five times and keeps getting out.
John, UK

Murder isn't punished by Murder! Hanging is by no means justified in any case.
Ali, UK

I believe that life should mean life and not five years or 20 years. If you take someone's life you not only kill one person but destroy other peoples' lives. It's about time judges understand this and also get rid of interfering do-gooders who keep telling us that the criminals had a harsh upbringing.
Andy, Sheffield

The philosophy of retaining the mandatory life sentence for a conviction for murder is sound. However I remain uncomfortable that the interpretation as to when a prisoner can be considered for parole is seriously flawed. At the moment it is shrouded in secrecy with the final decision resting with the Home Secretary. There should be a clear division between the Executive and the Judiciary. Judges should set minimum periods before a prisoner becomes eligible for parole and these should be published. Political interference and influence would then be removed.
Paul Mellor, Westcliff on Sea, England

Why do we have to keep changing laws, when we can't even enforce the ones we have?
Sarah Thornton, Lanark, Scotland

The current mandatory life sentence is regulated by the Home Secretary of the day. This place a judicial decision in the political arena and subjects it to the pressure of tabloid journalists. This cannot be fair.
Howard, Bath England

The execution process costs on average twice that of life without parole
Keith Brockie, Falkirk, Scotland
Ketan and Graham are wildly wrong in their glib protestations about the death penalty being cheaper to taxpayers - in the US, the execution process costs on average twice that of life without parole. The cost of the appeals process, lawyers fees, court time etc is astronomical. The states in which the death penalty is actively used in America (the only industrialised western nation still murdering its citizens and calling it "justice") have much higher murder rates then those which don't use it or do not have it on their statute books. The murder rate in Canada has gone down dramatically since abolition of the death penalty there.
Keith Brockie, Falkirk, Scotland

Anyone who commits murder should be given life in jail with NO parole. As it is, a murderer can get out in less than 3 years for 'good behaviour'. How can they be 'good' if they've killed someone? Other crimes, such as rape, should be given stiffer penalties too. For too long, the guilty have been, literally, getting away with murder thanks to soft sentencing. Someone needs to put their foot down.
Sian, UK

Maybe the sentence should be decided by jury? Judges may be in a position to sum up cases regarding their legality (and that's only because our system of laws is ancient and incomprehensible to the common man - just the way they like it) but the decision about how long a certain person serves in prison should be down to a jury of peers.
Jai Gomer, Cardiff, Wales

It sickens me, reading these comments, that there are many people who want a return of the death penalty. Maybe it escaped their notice, but nearly all civilised nations (excluding the US) have abandoned this human rights outrage. It is hypocritical to kill someone who has killed someone, it does not deter people from committing crime (the homicide rate drops when capital punishment is abandoned, and rises when it is re-introduced), it costs more than life imprisonment (even when life means life), and far too many innocent people are executed (see the US for statistics). As for the law, it already makes differences between manslaughter and murder, and the accused have a complicated system of defences that will drop their sentence.
Beth, Farnborough, UK

There are too many soft liberals out there
Graham, England
In the past before DNA etc, so innocent people went to the gallows. They also died because of corruption by the police. But these days with the proof beyond doubt then murderers should hang. It is also cheaper than to keep them in prison at my expense for the rest of their lives. Come on people get real. There are too many soft liberals out there.
Graham, England

The death Penalty should be brought back for murder at least, and only applied if the defendant is proven beyond all doubt of his/her guilt. As for Beth's comment about it costing more to have the death penalty, how does she work that one out? Surely it means less of our tax money goes towards housing these criminals in prison?
Ketan, Neasden, UK

Beth's naivety is astounding. Not only is she quite incorrect regarding the homicide rate dropping when capital punishment is abandoned (Note Pro death penalty Texas which has a very low homicide compared to no death penalty Washington DC with it's very high murder rate), but the cost of life imprisonment in these days of long life expectancy and generally excellent conditions (than perhaps they should be?) is also substantially higher than even a professionally administered lethal injection. I don't agree that the death penalty should be automatic, in fact, it should be the exception to the rule, but the legal system does need this kind of stick to deal with those offenders with clear evidence against them for premeditated offences.
Curtis, UK

For the premeditated killing of a person there should be a life sentence for murder. For all other killings there should be the crime of manslaughter with various sentences according to the crime (mercy killings included). For drunk drivers who kill or maim there should be at least five years in prison and a life time ban on driving.
Philip, UK

The death penalty should never be re-introduced. Having spoken to someone who was wrongly accused and on death row for 17 years, I realise that it can never be just - there are too many quashed convictions and successful appeals to allow the death penalty - some even after decades, in the light of new evidence.
Steve, Newport, Wales

The law for every crime needs changing
Brian, UK

The law for every crime needs changing. We are far too liberal in our punishments and we need to start getting all criminals, not just murderers off our streets for good. There is no point just changing one law, and although murder is serious there are very few people affected by murder, I would prefer to see car thieves, burglars, graffiti artists and thugs taken off our streets also. Once we get into the habit of actually removing the scum from society and treating them as the scum they are, instead of considering that everyone can be rehabilitated then the country will be better off.
Brian, UK

Kicking someone to death in the street is considered murder. Killing someone who burgles your house and threatens you is murder. Helping a terminally ill relative to die is murder. Yes. There are different kinds of killing. So there needs to be different kinds of punishment.
Graham, England

I am not a lawyer, or an expert in the field, but my gauging of the way a lot people feel, is that the inconsistency of the Justice System that lets the victims of these crimes down. At times we realise our hands are tied in regards to charges, brought, and sentences imposed. But it is frequent occurrence that some crimes classed as "trivial" can result in longer sentences than crimes that end lives. The whole British Justice system is stacked in favour of the criminal, rather than the victims.
Daniel Blakemore, St Helens, England

A review of the law would be a waste of taxpayers' money, what we should be reviewing is the judges and making them answerable to the taxpayers who pay their salaries.
Pat, Sussex

When you can get a life sentence for mercifully helping end the life of a terminally ill relative but get only three years for killing a man for stamping on your son's foot by mistake something is genuinely wrong. Judges should look at the motive rather than the crime itself - if there is no rational motive, they should be much harsher.
Tom Whyman, Hampshire, England

Of course they should, circumstances are always the key issue.
Chris, London

We all only get one life on this planet so if it's good enough for someone to plan to take another person's life then they should be prepared to have exactly the same happen to them. We are not tough enough on murder by a long way.
Steve Shelton, Derby, UK

We need a new law of culpable homicide. At present someone can only be convicted of murder if a deliberate intention to kill can be proven. At present, a motorist can get drunk, drive recklessly, kill innocent people and serve a couple of years imprisonment. A yob can stand on a motorway bridge, drop bricks on passing motorists, kill someone and serve a similar term. A law of culpable homicide would make a life service mandatory if a jury was persuaded that a person who killed another or others did so as a direct result of acting in a knowingly reckless manner. The pledge to introduce such a law would be an election winner.
Ray, Stockport, UK

Some of the posters here might do well to reflect that a father is currently being tried for murder because he killed his terminally ill son as an act of mercy. Is it right to lock him up and throw away the key? If the answer to this is "well, that's not really murder", then the Law Commission's point has been proved.
Oliver, UK

But nevertheless would not expect to be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law
Mark, Surrey

What about crimes of passion, if somebody wilfully killed or raped a member of my family, I would want to see them dead. I accept that it would still be murder if I killed them, and took the law into my own hands, but nevertheless would not expect to be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law, and judged in the same was as an arbitrary killer.
Mark, Surrey

There probably is a case for not giving some murderers life convictions but since we can't trust judges to be either
a) consistent, or
b) tough on criminals,
then we'll just end up with an even more messy situation than now.
Pete, Birmingham, UK

I don't believe that just because a death wasn't proved to be intended it's not murder. Attacks, especially unprovoked ones, should be taken more seriously. Someone who is prepared to punch someone to the ground and then continue to kick them should be charged with (attempted) murder with a maximum sentence of life (where life means life). Such people have no place in an allegedly civilised society.
Alex, London

If you murder someone you are taking away someone's life and destroying the lives of everyone close to them - it doesn't matter why you murdered them all murderers should be treated the same - lock them away and throw away the key.
Joanna Humphris, Bournemouth, UK

Who will decide what is a "serious" murder and what is "trivial"? The relatives of the victims? There should be one penalty for the premeditated taking of a life, which is forfeit of a life, either by execution or incarceration without parole.
Al, Skipton, UK

Surely the only differentiation of a crime that ends in the death of an individual or individuals is either deliberate or accidental? Either way it is serious! Surely this is already recognised in law with the differentiation of murder or manslaughter and the severity of sentence is already "graded" through the flexibility given to the court? The only way to deal with pre-meditated/deliberate acts of murder is, in the absence of a legally sound death sentence, is imprisonment for life - where life means just that!
Andy D, Oxford UK

I thought the whole point of giving them a sentence in years was to show how serious the crime is. If they are sentenced to 50 years that shows it is considered more serious than 30 years. If we start to grade them people will just appeal asking for a lesser grade and it will clog up the courts even more.
Paul, Cardiff

Challenging the double jeopardy rule would have been much more fruitful
Matt, Chelmsford, U
I would have thought challenging the double jeopardy rule would have been much more fruitful. Maybe then the Lawrence murderers could finally be put where they belong. Introducing grades won't do much to solve institutional weakness.
Matt, Chelmsford, UK

Yes, reform is necessary. For too long women who murder their husbands have been allowed to walk free in circumstances of callously premeditated murder because of the ridiculous stretching of the provocation partial defence. Provocation has to be instantaneous.
Tom, London

To Tom, London: Have you ever been physically and mentally abused by someone you love and trust? I haven't but I know people who have (without the extreme ending). Provocation should not be the defence because these women (and some men) should not be on trial in the first place. The murder laws need to recognise that society has changed and issues such as domestic violence are far more prominent than when these laws were written. People should not be allowed to get away with the continual abuse of their partners/children until their partners snap and end up on trial themselves. Life should mean life.
Lianne, Manchester, England

When Capital punishment ended it was replaced with a mandatory life sentence. This in itself was intended to re-assure the public that the most serious offence of all would receive the harshest punishment a society without capital punishment could give. Any thing but a mandatory life sentence means that as a society we no longer place the unlawful taking of a life as the most serious of all crimes. Yes there may be instances where the full sentence is not appropriate but a judge has the power in those cases to set a minimum tariff. Why change this situation?
Ed Hollinshead, UK

Murder is defined as "the wilful killing of any subject whatever, with malice aforethought"... there is no need to "grade" it as it is clearly defined. Self-defence killings can be prosecuted as manslaughter or murder due to diminished responsibility. Suggesting that certain murders aren't as serious as others diminishes the crime and makes it more acceptable to kill.
Peter, Nottingham, UK

It is not the murder laws that need reforming but the judges who hand down the sentences
Roshan, UK
It is not the murder laws that need reforming but the judges who hand down the sentences. The number of times that there has been a differing in standards between judges are too many to list! The difference in sentences handed down is what has dented the public's confidence in the law.
Roshan, UK

Yes is should be reformed. Life should mean life not five years with good behaviour.
Mike, UK

Mike in UK, Life really does mean life. Lifers are only ever let out "On License", they remain under constant supervision and can be sent back down for any infringement after their release, even parking tickets. After their minimum tariff term they are only released when probation officers and Judges determine that they no longer present any danger to the public. If these professionals think that the public would be at risk then they won't be released, no matter what tariff was set. Good behaviour has nothing to do with it.
The system works well as it is, judges set appropriate tariffs, which amount to the same as grading and has the advantage that every case is looked at on its merits. If a grading system was set up with a sentence of ten years then the public would be more at risk as there would be no way of continuing detention after this time, if it was thought the person would still present a danger after release.
Caroline,, Southend, UK.

The laws should be reformed to have different degrees of murder. However, the jury should decide which degree, leaving the judge the leeway to decide between the minimum and maximum punishment for that degree. Judges are so out of touch with the public's sense of justice that they should not be the ones to decide the severity of punishment. And of course for murder in the first degree for the likes of Ian Huntley we have to bring back hanging. Justice is currently too skewed in favour of the criminal when our society needs greater protection.
Matthew Knowles, Loughton, UK

To Matthew Knowles, Loughton, UK: No, we should not bring back hanging, or indeed any other form of execution. Whether it is state sanctioned or not, taking someone else's life is murder. (The battle field does not count.)
Dave, High Wycombe, UK


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