THE shrill headlines which greeted this week's publication of the Law Commission's proposals for reforming the law on murder did not augur well for the mature national debate which should take place before the government decides whether to accept the proposals in whole or in part, or to leave matters as they stand. There is certainly a need for reform of guidelines which were last reviewed in 1957 although it is true, as has been said, that murder is the same crime today as it was then. The need is for the law to give judges more flexibility in determining the nature and circumstances of a murder for which an accused person is found guilty. At present a judge can only reflect his view by the length of sentence he sets and even if that is for “life” he will know that in reality this usually means a period of only about fourteen years. The problem may be put in this way: the present law covers without distinction a premeditated killing for gain and an argument in which a blow or a stabbing leads to death even though it was not intended to be fatal. The solution proposed by the Law Commission is the introduction of “first degree” and “second degree” categories of murder and a closer definition of manslaughter. The first degree would cover “intention to kill” cases and the second degree would include killings through “reckless indifference” to causing death and cases of provocation. Manslaughter would be separately defined as killing by gross negligence or committing a criminal act knowing that it might cause harm.
Many people may feel that the changes will bring a further “softening” of punishment for the worst crime of all.
However, the present guidelines often produce unsatisfactory discrepancies between judgements and penalties which the new proposals are designed to avoid.


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