VICTORIA PRENTIS MP SPEAKS IN SUPPORT OF HOMICIDE LAW REFORM

On 30 June 2016, Victoria Prentis MP contributed to a debate on Homicide Law Reform in Westminster Hall. She spoke in support of reviewing the current legislation and expressed concern about the law of joint enterprise.

The below account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard from 30 June 2016:

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is a fellow member of the Select Committee on Justice, on his prescience in calling for this debate. It is a very important subject and has been for many years now, and it seems to me that the time is right for change in this area.

As a constitutional lawyer, I do not always keep up with the intricacies of criminal statutes and sentencing. In preparing for today I was slightly surprised that the definitions of “murder” and “manslaughter” had not moved on substantially since I was a student many years ago. We were taught that the law was outdated and not really fit for purpose; very little has changed. The Law Commission in 2005 declared that:

“The law governing homicide in England and Wales is a rickety structure set upon shaky foundations. Some of its rules have remained unaltered since the seventeenth century, even though it has long been acknowledged that they are in dire need of reform.”

Sadly, that is even more the case today than it was then.

I next came across the effects of the law on murder in my work for the Government Legal Service, when the Prison Service was a major client throughout my career. At the start of my time there, the concept of whole-life tariffs was being tested in the Myra Hindley case. I became fascinated by psychopathy—though clearly not a practitioner. I learnt that, though truly psychopathic murderers crossed my desk often, those cases, while newsworthy, were happily extremely rare and made up only a tiny proportion of those in our criminal justice system.

Just over 80 whole-life tariffs have been given since 1983 when they were introduced. Those guidelines are clear, judges seem to apply them sensibly, and there is also the right of political appeal where necessary. That system seems, to me and to the European Court of Human Rights, to work reasonably well, and is a good example of judicial discretion in action.

Later on in my career I was often called on to act for the Parole Board in cases of judicial review. There were frequent challenges to the legality of decisions of the Parole Board to refuse to release life-sentenced prisoners, who had often been accused of murder, either because they had not fully admitted their guilt or because they had not been able to do courses that would demonstrate that they had overcome their offending behaviour. Many of the young men imprisoned for murder were boys who had got tanked up in the pub and used a broken glass to inflict serious damage on somebody they did not like the look of.

Glassings in those days usually attracted sentences of around 10 to 12 years, but the variations in the availability of offender behaviour work meant that it was difficult to predict the length of time that anybody would serve. That has not got any easier with the pressures on the Prison Service currently, but we now know that the average length of a sentence for murder has risen from 13 years, which I think was measured in 2004, to about 17 years, which was measured recently. In those circumstances, it is more important than ever that we sort the law out.

I am in no way belittling the crushing effect of murder on the families of the victims. However, those sort of crimes, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham so clearly explained, are very different from the pre-meditated, sadistic murders carried out by psychopaths which passed my desk. It is important that the law recognises that. Many years ago, the Law Commission published a report in which it proposed changes to homicide sentencing. Its most radical suggestion was explained very clearly by my hon. Friend—in brief, it was to split the offence of murder into first and second degree murder, which itself can be categorised as voluntary or involuntary. After that, partial defences to murder of “diminished responsibility” and “loss of self-control” could be taken into account.

What is important is that those proposed changes would allow sufficient discretion for judges to choose from a far wider range of sentences. Yes, it would be more difficult for the public to understand at first, but with a concerted effort—possibly in a fictional context—our fascination for murder and serious crime would soon mean that the situation was clearer than it is now. After all, many of us have learnt a great deal about coercive control recently, though happily not in a fatal context, through the goings on in Ambridge.

I, too, have real concerns about the law of parasitic accessory liability, or joint enterprise. We have heard much about the joint enterprise law in recent months following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Jogee case that

“foresight is simply evidence (albeit sometimes strong evidence) of intent to assist or encourage”.

The ramifications are far-reaching. In the Supreme Court’s words, the law has taken a “wrong turn” for more than 30 years. No longer must young adults out to rob or perhaps to drive a getaway car, but with no thought of killing, end up with life sentences through the actions of their colleagues. We must confront the problem of the breadth of behaviour and culpability encompassed by the offence of murder.

Progress has been virtually non-existent since 2006, despite further consultation undertaken by both the last Labour Government and the coalition Government. So much is changing in the areas of prison reform and rehabilitation of offenders at the moment; both the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are filled with reforming zeal. I can see that the Minister is smiling at me—surely this is the moment to make long-overdue changes to the law of homicide as well.