Background to Harper’s Law
The government is set to introduce ‘Harper’s Law’ later this year in response to the death of PC Andrew Harper who was tragically killed in 2019 whilst serving as a police officer. Those responsible for PC Harper’s death were convicted of manslaughter, and received custodial sentences of between 13 and 19 years. The Court of Appeal rejected an Attorney General’s reference in 2020 which argued that their sentences were unduly lenient.
Harper’s Law will introduce mandatory life sentences for anyone convicted of unlawfully killing an emergency worker on duty whilst carrying out another crime, unless there are truly exceptional circumstances. ‘Emergency workers’ are defined by section 68 of the Sentencing Act 2020 and include police and prison officers, firefighters, and paramedics.
Harper’s Law is expected to make it into the statute books via an amendment to the existing Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently in the final stages of its passage through the Houses of Parliament. The Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent (and therefore become law) later this year. In this article, we will discuss how Harper’s Law will fit into the legal framework that currently exists for the offences of murder and manslaughter.
Murder vs manslaughter – the current legal framework
An unlawful killing can result in a conviction for murder or manslaughter depending on the suspect’s intentions.
Murder requires there to be an intention to kill, or to cause very serious harm. For centuries, it was punishable by death until the death penalty was abolished in 1965 and replaced with a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.
If the Prosecution cannot prove either an intention to kill or an intention to cause very serious harm, a person can still be found guilty of manslaughter. Manslaughter is seen as implicitly less grave than murder because it can be committed where the accused did not intend to cause serious harm. Instead, it covers acts that were grossly negligent or unforeseeable, such as a single punch that tragically results in the death of a victim, but where such a blow would not normally be expected to cause serious harm.
The statutory defences of diminished responsibility and loss of control, if proved by a Defendant, reduce an offence from murder to manslaughter, rather than resulting in an outright acquittal. Judges have always had discretion in terms of sentencing for manslaughter. The maximum sentence that could be imposed is life imprisonment, however, it is theoretically possible for a judge to pass a sentence as low as one year’s custody depending upon the culpability of an offender, and the presence of overwhelming mitigatory factors.
The difference in severity of sentencing for manslaughter and murder reflects the fact that manslaughter can be committed in a myriad of circumstances. There can be manslaughter cases in which an offender falls just short of intending to cause very serious harm, as did those responsible for the death of PC Harper (the sentencing judge commented that the circumstances were ‘very close to a case of murder’).
On the other hand, manslaughter can cover cases where no harm whatsoever was intended by the offender. Such a case could arise where a doctor, for example, negligently administers a vaccination to a patient knowing that they might be allergic to it, and the patient dies following an adverse reaction. There is a considerable disparity between the culpability of someone who whilst resisting arrest, strikes a police officer and accidentally kills them, and someone who drags an officer behind a vehicle for a prolonged period, as was the case in PC Harper’s death.
Harper’s Law, if passed into statute, would mandate the same sentence – imprisonment for life – in both of the above manslaughter examples, as well as a case where death or very serious harm was intended and resulted in a murder conviction. Harper’s Law proposes that, where the victim of manslaughter is an emergency worker, a mandatory life sentence be imposed irrespective of the culpability, or lack thereof, of the offender.
This is problematic, as we know that the goals of, and purposes behind, our criminal justice system are complex and innumerable. Delivering justice is not solely about inflicting as much punishment upon an offender as possible. If it were, the death penalty might still be in operation in this country today. Justice requires that the rights of offenders are upheld, and this obligates the justice system to treat those convicted of crimes, however serious, proportionately and fairly.
Harper’s Law would deform the manner in which the justice system assesses an offender’s culpability. It removes a sentencing judge’s ability to carefully weigh the factual circumstances, and aggravating and mitigating features, of a particular crime in order to reach a proportionate and fair assessment of an offender’s responsibility for their actions. This will result in sentences that are manifestly unfair.
A mandatory life sentence is the highest punishment that our courts can impose, and it follows that it should be reserved for the most serious and egregious crimes. Harper’s Law recognises the fact that emergency workers should be protected whilst carrying out their work, however there is a concern that it will do little to achieve that aim in practice. It fails to recognise that those who are charged with manslaughter are recognised to have killed unintentionally. The threat of a mandatory life sentence would not have prevented their actions given that they lacked any intention to kill or cause very serious harm in the first instance. There is a real concern that far from enhancing public confidence in the criminal justice system, Harper’s Law is likely to undermine it.