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UK Murder Law Reforms; Provocation Not An Excuse

Ministry of Justice (UK)

Anger no longer an excuse for murder - government launches consultation on reforms to the murder law

New reforms to the law on homicide will make it much harder for those who kill out of anger to avoid a murder conviction by claiming that they were provoked, Justice Minister Maria Eagle said today.

A Government consultation paper, 'Murder and Manslaughter: Proposals for Reform of the Law', launched today, proposes the abolition of the existing partial defence of provocation and its replacement with two new partial defences:

* Killing in response to a fear of serious violence; and

* In exceptional circumstances only, killing in response to words and conduct which caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged

Currently, defendants who successfully plead provocation can avoid the mandatory life sentence that a murder charge carries, instead receiving the lesser sentence of manslaughter.

The proposed change comes in response to long-standing concerns that the centuries-old partial defence impacts differently on men and women and is too generous to those who kill out of anger and too hard on those who kill out of fear of serious violence. The consultation paper makes clear that a manslaughter conviction should be justified for killings carried out in anger only in exceptional circumstances - which do not include sexual infidelity on the part of the victim.

Maria Eagle said:

"Killers will no longer be able to chance their luck with a catch-all 'I was provoked' defence.

"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. With these changes, the law will be quite clear.

"There'll be a significant impact on other anger killing cases too. Some killers who might currently get off with manslaughter will get murder in future."

Welcoming the proposed changes Minister for Women Harriet Harman said:

"For centuries the law has allowed men to escape a murder charge in domestic homicide cases by blaming the victim. Ending the provocation defence in cases of "infidelity" is an important law change and will end the culture of excuses.

"There is no excuse for domestic violence, let alone taking a life. Whatever happens in a relationship does not justify resorting to violence. So men who kill their wife will have to face a murder charge and will no longer be able to claim 'its her fault, she provoked me'.

"Changing the law will end the injustice of women being killed by their husband and then being blamed. It will end the injustice of the perpetrators making excuses saying it's not my fault - it's hers."

Noting that the homicide law was last reformed 50 years ago, Attorney General Baroness Scotland said:

"Murder destroys the lives of families and impacts on the fabric of society. It is vital that we have a clear and fair legal framework in which to prosecute those guilty of this most violent of crimes."

"Murder law has not changed since 1957 - the proposed thorough overhaul will bring it right up to date."

Solicitor General Vera Baird QC said:

"I did many Court cases defending battered women who killed their violent partners, when I was a practising barrister.

"In cases like Emma Humphreys, the Court of Appeal extended the defence of provocation as far as it would stretch in an attempt to accommodate cases for which the defence was not originally designed.

"The new partial defence of killing from losing self control from fear of serious violence would provide a tailored response to cases like these and make it easier for justice to be done.

"Exceptionally, someone who loses control and kills from a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged by the victim's conduct will also have a partial defence. However, unlike the current defence of provocation, this can't be used when ordinary domestic conflicts cause friction and emphatically will not be available as a reaction to sexual infidelity."

"The days of sexual jealousy as a defence are over."

Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker said:

"These new proposals will ensure that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system and send a clear message that the law is on their side and takes account of the experiences of those who kill in genuine fear of serious violence, for example a woman who repeatedly suffers domestic violence and finally kills her partner when she can suffer no more".

Today's consultation paper also proposes:

* Streamlining the law of complicity to homicide to make it easier for courts to determine liability in cases where more than one person is involved in a killing

* Clarifying the law on diminished responsibility

* Clarifying the law on the handful of infanticide cases that are tried each year

The consultation paper draws on recommendations made by the Law Commission, following their 2006 review of homicide law.

NOTES

1. The consultation, launched today, will close on 20 October 2008.

2. Consultation documents are available at:
http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/cp1908.htm

3. As part of the consultation process Maria Eagle will host a seminar for MPs and Lords, aiming to explain the proposals and generate debate. The seminar is currently timetabled for October 2008.

http://www.justice.gov.uk

Client ref 100/08
COI ref 164035P

ENDS

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