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Labour calls for sensible approach to murder laws

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After delaying consideration of the degrees of murder bill for over two years because of fundamental divisions within its caucus, National's new Minister of Justice now appears determined to rush headlong into a change about which many people within the justice system have severe reservations, Labour justice spokesperson Phil Goff said today.

"What is needed is not to try and define arbitrarily which of three degrees of seriousness a murder falls within, but rather to have in place a sentencing regime which can set much longer minimum sentences for murder when justified by the circumstances of any particular case.

"After years of Labour pressing for change the Government has finally this year, in the Criminal Justice Amendment Act, allowed judges much more scope to apply minimum periods of imprisonment before parole.

"As a first step we should wait the effectiveness of this change in dealing with the worst murders before making further amendments.

"While some of the silliest aspects of the Degrees of Murder Bill have now been taken out by its sponsor there are still negative albeit unintended consequences which would arise from passing the bill.

"In particular the Ministry of Justice has in the past warned that by increasing the complexity of the jury's task, there will be more hung juries where jurors can't agree, greater inconsistency between jury decisions and more appeals. Great Britain trialled a degrees of murder system from 1957 to 1969 before abandoning it.

"The bill does not in fact provide greater flexibility in sentencing murderers but reduces it. There are not simply three degrees of murder but as the British Royal Commission pointed out, "an infinite variety of offences which shade out by degrees from the most atrocious to the most excusable."

"The Criminal Justice Act now allows judges to look at each case on its merits and set a high minimum period before parole can be considered. In the Joseph Thompson trial (for serial rape rather than murder) a minimum period of 25 years was set.

"What is needed is a properly informed debate on the subject. Yet once the National Party has suppressed the advice given by the Ministry of Justice. The minister has every right to disagree with his ministry. However, he owes it to the public and to Parliament to disclose the arguments his ministry has brought forward to allow a fully informed debate to take place.

"There is a real danger of a serious issue being caught up in National Party electioneering rather than the full and considered approach to revising a key area of the criminal law, that is actually needed," Mr Goff said.

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