The Ministry of Justice has dismissed calls to create US-style degrees of murder, ruling out a consultation due to an ‘already full programme’ of reform and legislation. In a letter to the chair of the House of Commons justice committee this week, justice minister Sir Oliver Heald said he did not share concerns that the law needed to be urgently reformed.
Heald said the law covers all relevant areas of criminality and, as far as the government is aware, there are no immediate legislative gaps that need to be filled.
He also noted ‘very little demand’ from the public for a review.
Concerns about the law of homicide were raised last month when the committee discussed proposals by the Law Commission to introduce new categories for murder: first-degree, where a murder is intentional, and second-degree, where murderers do not intend to kill.
Acknowledging that the law relating to murder and manslaughter is complex, Heald said: ‘I do wonder, however, whether the apparently high number of appeals at least partly reflects the gravity of a murder conviction and the potential sentence that the offender is facing, rather than any clear deficiency in the judge’s directions given to juries during a trial.’
Heald said he thought juries understand what is required of them in a case where the issue is whether an unlawful killing has been prompted by an intention to kill or to cause grievous bodily harm.
Acknowledging concerns about the sentences imposed in one-punch manslaughter cases, he said the government plans to respond to the Sentencing Council’s forthcoming consultation on a proposed new guideline for manslaughter.
Heald questioned whether the committee’s suggestion of a review of homicide law starting with a public consultation is feasible in the near future, ‘in the context of the department’s already full programme of reform and legislation’.
He said: ‘Such a review would require significant resource, which is not currently available. Realistically, therefore, I am unable to give a commitment to conducting a review in this area at this time.’