Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Tuesday, 29 July 2008 16:52 UK

Changes in murder laws proposed

Kiranjit Ahluwalia, centre, celebrating her release in 1992
The case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia set a legal precedent in 1992

Proposed reforms of the law on homicide in much of the UK could change the way a murder charge is reduced to manslaughter.

They would see the partial defence of provocation scrapped and replaced with two new ones.

These would be if someone killed over fears about serious violence, or if they could show they were "seriously wronged" by the victim's actions.

The law changes would apply to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Attorney General Baroness Scotland said they would bring the law "up to date".

Under the plans, the partial defence of diminished responsibility would also be abolished and replaced with a new defence based on "recognised medical conditions".

Adultery 'no excuse'

The partial defence of "fear of serious violence" could be used by long-term domestic abuse victims, arguing they were forced to kill their abuser.

And in "exceptional circumstances" a defendant could successfully claim they killed in response to words or conduct that left them feeling "seriously wronged".

Harman on murder law overhaul in England and Wales

The Ministry of Justice said someone could not claim to be "seriously wronged" if they found out their partner was having an affair, whereas adultery can count under the current provocation defence.

A spokeswoman said the existing law "is designed to cater for anger killing, but it is not significantly well tailored for killings that are a response to fear".

Justice Minister Maria Eagle said: "For men and women who kill their partners, these changes will mean that the letter of the law finally catches up with judges and juries, who in recent years have been less prone than people think to let men off lightly and punish women harshly.

"However, in order to be fair they've had to stretch the law to its limits."

The minister said the proposed partial defence of long-term abuse marked a "substantial change", although she stressed that the government "would not want to introduce anything that would allow cold, calculating killers to get away with it".

To my mind, there will be some suspicion that this consultation on changing the homicide law is more about gender politics than it is about murder
BBC's Mark Easton

Erin Pizzey, a veteran campaigner for women's rights, said of the plans: "I'm appalled by it, because I think 'thou shalt not kill' has been with us since the time of Moses.

"It's so important that we don't in any way upset the concept that to kill another human being is the most terrible thing you can do."

Barrister Geoffrey Robertson, QC, told the BBC that the proposals did include "sensible" changes but that they did not address all of his concerns, including the mandatory life sentence for murder.

He said: "Any mandatory sentence is unjust because it doesn't distinguish between the terrorist and the gangland executioner and the mercy killer at the other end of the scale, who maybe doesn't deserve to go to prison at all, but has to be sentenced to life imprisonment, and the domestic killings."

The plans face public consultation before new legislation is introduced.

They follow a 2006 report from the Law Commission which made wide-ranging recommendations for changes to legislation.

The Scottish government said it has no plans to make changes to this area of criminal law, but the Scottish Law commission is looking at the defences of provocation, self-defence and coercion.

NI murder laws face major review
29 Jul 08 |  Northern Ireland
How do you grade murder?
06 Aug 04 |  UK

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific