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If you or someone you care about has been charged with murder, or is potentially facing such a charge, it’s understandable that sentencing will be top of mind. Regardless of your innocence or guilt, you are probably thinking about what kind of prison sentence you might face if you are ultimately found guilty in a court of law. Because murder is such a serious offence, the UK government has actually set out legal standards and guidelines for how the sentencing of murder should take place. In this article, we outline the offence of murder and its constituent elements, along with information on sentencing and factors that may increase or decrease a particular sentence. We also answer some common questions around life sentences and point out where to get more help.
In the UK, the offence of murder is known as a ‘common law’ offence. This means that the elements of the offence that the prosecution must prove are not set out in a piece of legislation, but instead have been developed over time by judges in various court cases. In order to secure a conviction for murder, the prosecution must prove:
That there was an unlawful killing. The first element is that the act in question must involve the killing of another person. It must be unlawful, which means that it is not legally justified or excused. For example, killing someone in self-defence may not be considered murder if it meets certain legal criteria.
That the victim was a living human being. This means the crime cannot be committed against an animal or an unborn child, for instance.
That the murder took place in a situation not considered a state of war. ‘Under the Queen’s peace’ basically means within the jurisdiction of the Queen’s law. Nowadays, that may be referred to as ‘under the King’s peace.’
That there was malice aforethought. This is perhaps the most complex element. ‘Malice aforethought’ does not necessarily mean that the killer acted out of spite or hate. Rather, it refers to the intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH). Note that there are two main types of malice aforethought: express and implied. Express malice aforethought means that the killer intended to kill the victim. Implied malice aforethought means that the killer intended to cause GBH or knew that their actions might cause death or GBH, but proceeded anyway.
The prosecution must prove each of these elements in order to secure a conviction. If one or more of the elements is missing, it will not be charged as murder, but depending on the circumstances of the case, may be charged as a lesser crime, such as manslaughter.
If found guilty of murder, the judge presiding over the case must impose a life sentence. This does not, however, necessarily mean that the guilty party will spend the rest of their life in prison (though it could, because in the most serious of cases the judge may impose a whole life tariff, which may be applied if the person is considered too dangerous ever to be released back into the public).
As part of the sentence, the judge will specify a minimum amount of time that the person has to spend in prison before they will be considered eligible for release. This amount of time is called the ‘minimum tariff’ and there are numerous factors that go into deciding what that minimum tariff should be.
Initially, a judge will consult legal guidance on what the ‘starting point’ for the minimum tariff will be. Generally, this will be between 15 and 30 years for an adult, and from 12 years for someone under the age of 18.
According to the Sentencing Council:
Where there was a carefully planned murder of two or more people, or a murder committed by an offender who had already been convicted of murder, the starting point for an offender aged 21 or over is a whole life tariff. For an offender aged 18-20, the starting point would be 30 years, and for an offender aged under 18, it is 12 years.
In cases involving the use of a firearm or explosive, the starting point is 30 years for an offender aged 18 or over and 12 years for an offender aged under 18.
In cases where the offender brings a knife to the scene and uses it to commit murder, the starting point is 25 years for an offender aged 18 or over, and 12 years for an offender aged under 18.
In cases that do not fall into the above categories, the starting point is 15 years for an offender aged 18 or over, and 12 years for an offender aged under 18.
When deciding on the minimum tariff, the judge takes into account everything that he or she has been told during the case. They will take into account the circumstances of the crime, the characteristics of the individuals involved, the harm caused to the victim’s family, and several other factors.
The factors could make the crime more serious and accordingly warrant a higher minimum tariff, or they could make the crime less serious, warranting a lower minimum tariff. These factors are called aggravating and mitigating factors.
Here are some examples of what the judge will take into account when looking at aggravating and mitigating factors for murder:
With these aggravating and mitigating factors in mind, as well as the legal guidance on starting points, the judge will set a minimum tariff. The offender will be required to serve this tariff before they can apply to be released.
What happens when you are released from prison after a murder conviction?
The reason that life sentences are called life sentences, even though the offender may actually be released from prison after as little as 15 years, is because the individual remains subject to strict conditions for the rest of their life even when they have been deemed safe to release back to the public.
If the Parole Board grants a prisoner’s request to be released, new conditions will apply to them once they are back out in public. This is known as being released ‘on licence’. If these conditions are broken or if the offender later is determined to be a risk to the public, they may be brought back to prison to serve more time (which may be the rest of their lives).
There are no complete defences to murder available in the UK, only ‘partial’ defences that may reduce a charge (and sentence) down to one of manslaughter. These are defences are diminished responsibility, loss of control, and killing in pursuance of a suicide pact.
Diminished responsibility – applies when the defendant’s mental capacity was significantly diminished at the time of the offence due to an abnormality of mental functioning from a recognised medical condition. It must substantially impair their understanding of their conduct, rational judgement, or self-control.
Loss of control – this defence replaces provocation and applies when the defendant kills someone due to a fear of serious violence or feeling seriously wronged. The loss of control must occur suddenly and not be a reaction to a minor insult or self-induced intoxication. It cannot be a calculated desire for revenge.
Killing in pursuance of a suicide pact – this defence applies when the defendant kills the victim as part of a suicide pact, with a settled intention to die themselves.
Murder is among the most serious criminal offences that you can be charged with, and if you are facing a murder charge, getting the assistance of experienced and specialist murder solicitors is imperative. You need to work with somebody that not only understands the highly complex nuances of murder offences and how they are treated by the courts, but also somebody that will have the compassion to assist you through every aspect of your trial. Get in touch with the team at Stuart Miller Solicitors today for a free consultation.
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