Govt proposing murder law shakeup

An overhaul of murder laws making it easier for killers who suffered domestic abuse to escape with a manslaughter conviction has been announced by the government.

The Ministry of Justice’s consultation paper on murder, manslaughter and infanticide suggests that the “fear of serious violence” be used as an acceptable partial defence for murder cases where the victim subjected the killer to violent abuse.

Killing in response to “words and conduct” which led the defendant to having a sense of being “seriously wronged” and other changes to the definition of diminished responsibility will also be introduced.

There are strict rules governing when these partial defences can be used. They are not permissible when the defendant’s situation has been caused by his or her criminal conduct, or when the “words and conduct” were incited by the defendant as an excuse.

Sexual infidelity on the part of the victim will not constitute grounds for reducing murder to manslaughter, meaning ‘crimes of passion’ will remain inexcusable.

Justice minister Maria Eagle said: “With these changes, the laws will be clearer.”

And minister for women Harriet Harman said the scrapped “provocation” defence in cases of infidelity would end the “culture of excuses” previously existing.

“For centuries the law has allowed men to escape a murder charge in domestic homicide cases by blaming the victim,” she said.

“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’.”

The consultation follows a 2006 report on changes to murder laws by the Law Commission. Its proposals to introduce a first- and second-degree murder scale is not being adopted by the government.

Over 50 years have passed since the last review of the law on homicide and the government says “the time is ripe for another one”.

“The role of the criminal law in these cases is to ensure that justice is done and that the punishment fits the crime,” Ms Eagle, attorney general Baroness Scotland and Home Office minister Vernon Coaker state in the consultation’s foreword.

“In order to do this, the law needs to be clear and consistent and in tune with current circumstances and attitudes.”

The Conservative said they would consider the proposals carefully but voiced concern about any moves which “appear to diminish the seriousness of murder, which rightly carries a mandatory life sentence”.