Matthew Scott

‘Harper’s law’ is a mistake

'Harper's law' is a mistake
A tribute for PC Andrew Harper (Getty images)
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What is a suitable punishment for those who kill a policeman? For PC Andrew Harper's widow, Lissie, the sentences given to her husband's teenage killers – a maximum of 16 years – were woefully insufficient. Many agreed. And now Lissie Harper has started a petition calling for 'Harper's law'. Half a million people have signed up, demanding a change in the law to ensure those convicted of killing a police officer, firefighter, nurse, doctor, prison officer or paramedic are jailed for life. But while it is impossible not to feel horror at the way in which PC Harper was killed – entangled in a tow rope and dragged along a road for over a mile behind a car – as well as sympathy with his widow, 'Harper's Law' is a bad idea.

The campaign is not directed at those who murder emergency workers. Murder already attracts an automatic life sentence, and where the victim is a police officer doing his duty the statutory 'starting point' is life without parole. The object of the petition is to ensure that those guilty of the lesser offence of manslaughter also receive a life sentence, where the victim is an emergency worker. 

Life imprisonment is already a possible sentence for manslaughter and the judge made it clear that, had Long been older, he would have passed one. Even so, many will agree with Mrs Harper that the sentences passed on the three young men – 16 years imprisonment for Long (the driver of the car) and 13 for each of the passengers – are still too short. The Attorney General certainly thinks so, and has referred the cases to the Court of Appeal which will decide on October 28th whether they were 'unduly lenient'.

But whatever our views on the sentence, we should be wary of changing the law in response to a single case, however dreadful. The Home Secretary can hardly blame the distinction between murder and manslaughter on the 'activist human rights lawyers' that she appears to dislike so much. It has been part of the common law of England and Wales for centuries. Even during the eighteenth century, when you could be hanged for stealing a horse, living with gypsies or having a blackened face at night, the law recognised a vast conceptual difference between murder and manslaughter. Murder, like horse theft, attracted an automatic death sentence. Manslaughter did not: the usual punishment, in fact, was branding.

In PC Harper’s case the trial judge referred when passing sentence to the crucial question that the jury had had to answer:

'The jury were not sure that Henry Long knew that ... the car he was driving was dragging a human body. That is what the prosecution had to prove before anyone could be convicted of murder and they did not succeed in doing so.'

Distressing though the verdict obviously was to Mrs Harper and many others, the jury accepted the possibility that Long did not have the necessary intent. The sentence then has to reflect the jury’s decision.

Where the victim is an emergency worker, Harper’s law would render the distinction between murder and manslaughter largely academic. Both would attract a mandatory life sentence.

Yet culpability in offences of manslaughter is wildly variable. A single punch which unexpectedly causes death can be manslaughter. A killing which would otherwise be murder can be reduced to manslaughter by reason of the killer’s 'diminished responsibility' (in essence a mental condition falling short of legal insanity). A builder who leaves heavy windows leaning against a building overnight commits manslaughter if a gust of wind blows them over and kills a passing pedestrian. A restaurateur commits manslaughter if he kills a customer by substituting almonds for peanuts. A law which mandated a life sentence for all these offences would be unjust and absurd, and doubly so if it applied only if the victim was an emergency worker.

Perhaps Harper’s law would apply only when emergency workers are killed while doing their duty? But this would hardly make it less unjust. Should the manslaughter of a police officer killed by a rowdy teenager with a single punch attract an automatic life sentence, when that committed by a landlord who asphyxiates his tenants by letting them a flat knowing it contains a dangerous boiler does not?

That is not to say the current law is perfect. In fact it is a mess. Not even all murders merit life imprisonment, although the law permits no other sentence. The devoted husband who cannot bear to watch the suffering of his dying wife and administers a fatal overdose of painkillers is guilty of murder in law just as much as if he battered her to death for her inheritance, even if sensible prosecutors will generally accept his plea to manslaughter.

The view of the Law Commission in 2006 was that the English and Welsh law of homicide was a 'rickety structure...in dire need of reform'. Little has changed since then, and almost all of the Commission’s sensible recommendations have been left to gather dust. Yet bad though the existing law is, there is still scope to make it much worse. Gesture legislation to introduce mandatory life sentences for manslaughter would do just that.

Written byMatthew Scott

Matthew Scott is a criminal barrister at Pump Court Chambers

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