January 2011 articles archive:

Mercy killings - is there a legal answer?

A pensioner has been spared a prison sentence of two years for smothering his suicidal wife in a 'mercy killing'.

Many of us will have read or heard something about euthanasia and how Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has issued a policy statement giving information and advice about the circumstances when someone assisting a person to die may be prosecuted.

Euthanasia (from the Greek, meaning good death) is generally defined as the act of killing a terminally ill person out of concern and compassion for that person's suffering.  Euthanasia is sometimes called mercy killing, but many argue that although mercy killing may include the ending of another person's life there is less certainty about whether this is at that other person's request. Hence a mercy killing can be seen as an act of killing a person who is very ill, the purpose being to stop them suffering any more pain.

How can the law deal with so called 'mercy killings'?  This week the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, sitting in the Court of Appeal, reminded us that in legal terms the matter was not of assisted suicide or euthanasia but of manslaughter.

George Webb, a pensioner, who had smothered his suicidal wife Beryl, aged 75, in a 'mercy killing' has had his two year prison sentence reduced on appeal to a 12 month suspended sentence.  It came out that Beryl had attempted suicide after her efforts to persuade her husband to help her die had failed.  George then smothered his wife.  The charge would have been murder had it not been reduced to manslaughter by a plea of diminished responsibility as a result of George's mental state - he had developed a form of depression as part of a condition referred to as a 'significant' adjustment disorder.

Can the law find a way?  Many of you reading this will have learnt that the sentence for manslaughter is discretionary, unlike murder, where the law lays down a mandatory sentence of life.  Lord Judge took care over the matter of whether a lenient sentence might send out the wrong message and stated that the court did not in fact believe that "in the unusual and particular circumstances", the "principle of the sanctity of human life would be undermined"

Lord Judge went on to say that it meant that "this lonely old man may receive the help that he will need to come to terms with the disaster that has overtaken him"

This case and others do seem to suggest that the courts do need the flexibility to issue a sentence which is appropriate taking everything into consideration.

Will some prisoners win the right to vote?

Some will say that it is high time that Parliament debated the issue of whether to give prisoners the right to vote, and if so, which ones. We are, after all, a democracy.

Many of you may well be familiar with the government's predicament by now.  Should they adhere to the UK ban on prisoners voting or  change the policy and allow some prisoners to vote in answer to criticism from the European Court of Human Rights.  Prisoners were prohibited from voting under the Forfeiture Act 1870.  The ban was temporarily lifted in the 60s and 70s, only for the ban to be reinstated by the Rerpresentation of the People Act 1983.

So what do we do apart from getting all hot and bothered and rant about Parliamentary sovereignty?  It is important to remember that the ECHR problem with the ban is that it considered the 'blanket ban' to be discriminatory.  You may remember that the case was brought before the Court by the convicted killer John Hirst. This sort of problem is not new, and some law students may be familiar with the European court's ruling in the case of Britain's national database which, unlike some other countries, retains profiles of persons who have not been convicted of any offence - until the law is to be changed in accordance with proposals. 

What are the issues?  Where does Prime Minister David Cameron stand?  Finally where will the line be drawn in the sand?

It has been widely reported that David Cameron would like to resist full reinstatement and his government has outlined proposals for the ban to apply to all prisoners serving four or more years in prison.  Some argue that we should operate a minimalistic approach and grant the right to as few prisoners as possible.  Are we to move away from a four year limit to a limit of one year or less?

Civitas, an independent think tank which seeks to deepen public understanding of the legal, institutional and moral framework that makes society, disagrees with the views of John Hirst who is on record recently as saying "All prisoners can do is riot if they've got a complaint, so you've got to give them this legitimate channel."  This seems to be the reverse of the present blanket ban!  Is it right to say that the only option is to give all prisoners the vote?

There are some who point to the issue of rehabilitation and this includes The Prison Governors Association which has warned that the ban may hamper inmates’ rehabilitation.

Others argue that the ban should be retained for prisoners convicted of murder and serious offences for which they are serving a life sentence.  Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust , has joined the debate and is reported as saying that many prison governors believe voting is an important part of resettlement and prison is about rehabilitation as well as punishment.

Let's hope that the debate will continue.

 

For Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe life will mean life!

There are some prisoners who receive the 'whole life' tariff and Peter Sutcliffe is one of them.

Peter Sutcliffe, who became known as the Yorkshire Ripper, was given a life sentence for each of the 13 women he murdered and for each of the 7 he attempted to murder.  Sutcliffe received these sentences back in 1981. 

In 2009 the High Court ordered that he must serve a 'whole life' tariff and last year he applied for leave to challenge the decision.

The Court of Appeal have rejected his application unanimously.

Lord Chief Justice, lord Judge, reached the decision that a 'whole life' tariff, meaning the prisoner will never be released, was the only appropriate sentence.

The guidelines, which set out how long murderers should spend in prison before being considered for parole, came about as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.  The guidelines are there for judges to follow and if they do not they must give reasons for their departure from them.  The guidelines provide direction in the case of multiple murders and enables the trial judge to determine that the accused should serve a 'whole life' tariff where there have been aggravating factors.  The factors are where there is evidence of sexual abuse, pre-planning, abduction or terrorism.

 

Terror detention period now 14 days

Why do politicians find it so difficult to recognise the reality of a situation when trying to save face?

New broom, Damian Green of the Home Office, has announced that the present government has decided, as part of its recent review of terrorist measures, to reduce the 28-day detention period to 14 days.  Some of you may remember that the previous labour government were reduced to leaving their measure to increase the detention to 42 days on the table in a bid to save its legislative programme at the time.  The measure to increase the maximum period to 42 days received opposition from civil liberties groups.

Now we are told that the 28 day period, far from being increased, is being reduced to 14 days.  The provision operates as part of the Terrorist Act 2006.  The new period will apply from the 25 January 2011.

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