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The law of murder as currently constituted opens room for widespread criticism and, therefore, fails to address the very issue it exists to serve. Specifically, some of the critiques base their opinions on the fact that many people who are alleged to have committed murder are unable to effectively participate in the criminal trial process (Ashworth & Mitchell 2000, p. 34). One more reason for critics of criminal law to argue for implementing reforms is that so many people on sides, the victims and the defendants, deny justice due to the complexity of the law. On the other hand, proponents consider the system effective because it ensures that criminals are charged with their crimes without the possibility of cheating justice system.
This essay argues that reforms in the murder law are long overdue because there is an urgent need to fit the contemporary society. This argument is supported by the detailed exploration of the advantages and disadvantages of the English murder law system.
Criticisms of the Law of Murder
The law of murder is credited with an essential quantity of advantages as well as disadvantages. Even though being criticized for its complexity, this law helped to deliver justice to thousands of families whose relatives had become victims of the murder crime (Roberts 2010). The Law Reform Commission defines the law of murder in England and Wales as a “rickety structure.” Although such an assessment questions the role of this law in prosecuting those who are accused of committing murder, the law itself cannot stop being important for the society. Moreover, the murder law plays a vital role in prosecuting the criminals and sets the minimum requirements upon which a murder case can be prosecuted. This is also known as the actus reus, which is basically the unlawful killing of a human being in a jurisdiction that prohibits murder. In this sense, a person can commit murder by an act of omission but still get a reduced charge based on the defence. As unlawful killings are considered violent crimes, it is highly important to establish the cause of the murder. In this regard, the law requires a causation to be established so that the accused person is justly prosecuted. The law of murder also lays a wide scope for responsibility with the purpose to prevent murder (Dell 1984, p. 89). For instance, the law imposes a range of duties on a person and the one can be guilty by the mere act of omitting these duties.
A suitable example to illustrate the offence of omission is a case where terrorists set a bomb in a crowded area and in the process cause a stampede where people are trampled to death. It could also be a situation where a law enforcement officer assumes the responsibility to protect life and property and engages in misconduct that leads to death of a person (Ormerod & Laird 2014, p. 20). Continuing acts of aiding in crimes that have led to someone’s death could also be classified as murder incidence for which a legally responsible person could be charged (Reed & Bohlander 2013, p. 43). Nevertheless, the law defines some murder instances that could be legal, such as killing in self-defence (Merritt 2010). State-sanctioned executions following a prosecution for a crime are also killings that are recognized by the law (Law Commission, 2006, p. 1). An example is in R v Adams  Crim LR 365, where a doctor was charged with easing the passing of elderly people which hastened their deaths. The judge held that the doctor did not have a special defence but was “entitled to do all that is necessary to relieve patients’ pain even if the measures he takes may incidentally shorten life.” In this instance, the doctor was not found guilty of first-degree murder even though his actions led to the patients’ death.
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The law of murder is also criticised for failing to serve the interests of the involved parties sufficiently. While the existing legal requirements have been used to prosecute a number of people, there is a general feeling that it does not serve the interests of the defendants as well as the victims (Gurnham 2009, p. 56). In some cases, it is noted that the time the defendant’s conduct is taken into account, the categorization of the victim may have changed (Gans 2012). For instance, in a case where the defendant injures the victim and the latter one will die six months later because of the inflicted injuries, the murder law cannot be instituted against the defendant (Herring 2009, p. 33). It is, therefore, highly important to ensure that victims are under the protection of the murder law right after being injured as well as long time after that (Weathered 2010).
Scrutinizing the scope of defence for murder crimes, one can deduce that it has become complicated with the courts becoming less likely to resolve the emerging disagreements (Findley 2002, p. 50). To exemplify, the introduction of partial responsibility, which is known as diminished responsibility, means that more defendants are likely to escape justice. Moreover, the actual impact of diminished responsibility is often misinterpreted as the jury adopts different meanings of this term (Garrett & Neufeld 2009).
The law of murder is also criticized for allowing murder in pursuant of suicide as defined in Section 4 of the Homicide Act 1957, which removes responsibility from the survivor although his/her actions have led to the killing of another person. In this case, the accused person is only charged with manslaughter. Generally, such a provision in the law was created to allow the jury to pity the alleged criminals, but nowadays it is often misused. In R v Cunningham  2 All ER, a suspect was charged with attacking the victim with a chair, which followed by victim’s death. The jury concluded that even though the suspect had an intention to cause harm by repeated attacks, he did not have the intention to cause death and, therefore, there was a lack of evidence to recognize the suspect’s guilt for murder.
Analysing the law of murder further, the criminals who submit to a psychiatric examination are often left without any defence in the case when the medical results do not show any mental disturbance. In fact, the mental examination process is considered infallible and, hence, used against the defendant. In the case where the accused person is unlikely to have another line of defence, they are convicted of murder against the interest of the public. The judges and the prosecutors have to make difficult choices whenever they are prosecuting such cases (Ashworth & Horder 2013, p. 53). In R v White  2 KB 124 , the defendant was charged with putting cyanide in the food of his mother although the victim had died of heart attack before the poison started acting. The defendant was acquitted of murder as he did not cause the death of his mother. Nevertheless, he was charged with an attempted murder. Moreover, the defendant could be charged with first-degree murder but because the victim had died from a cause other than the poison, the jury found it more suitable to charge him with an attempted murder.
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Reformation of the law of murder will capture the idea of partial defences being confined to murder described as first degree (Tronson 2013; Loveless 2014, p. 60). In manslaughter there should be no partial defences as they are likely to reduce the first-degree murder to second-degree murder. In order to correct such flaws, the Ministry of Justice is required to lead a comprehensive review of the law (Horder 2012, p. 15). The areas that need primary focus include the reformation of partial defences to murders that result from provocation; the reformation of offences of complicity as it relates to cases of homicide; and lastly, the improvement of procedures which deals with cases of infanticide (Szego 2014). These three reforms will help to address the criticism that is raised against the current murder law and improve the way this law is applied (Card 2014, p. 70).
To summarize, the law of murder has both positive and negative sides. One of the commonly cited advantages of the mentioned law is its ability to bring closure to the victim’s family about justice for their relative. It is also credited with defining the standards upon which different criminal offenders can be charged. Among the negative sides of the murder law, one can distinguish its self-contradiction when it comes to dealing with murder cases where there was no intention to kill. In this regard, the jury is left with the right to make a decision on its own. To summarize the above-mentioned, the careful reformation is needed to avoid introducing adverse consequences into the law. Generally, a large part of the murder law is considered satisfactory in the way murder cases are prosecuted. This fact, however, does not imply that a few reforms will not benefit the entire system.