Whole Life Tariffs for Police Killers?


Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is due to announce on 15th May 2013 (to the Police Federation Annual Conference) that those who “Criminals who kill police officers will face minimum whole life sentences”.


How it works at the moment

The current position is that anyone convicted of murder will receive a life sentence. This is regardless of the seriousness of the offence, and however unnecessary a life sentence would be.

The trial Judge has to set a ‘tariff’, the minimum period (and it is a minimum period, you cannot be released before that period, and many people will serve a lot more) that has to be served before someone can go in front of the Parole Board and apply for release.

There are a small number of people (about 50-60) who are serving ‘whole life’ tariffs, meaning that they will never be released.

Currently, the following types of murder will mean that the Judge starts his or her consideration of the tariff by looking at a whole life tariff:

  • the murder of a child if involving the abduction of the child or sexual or sadistic motivation,
  • a murder done for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause, or
  • a murder by an offender previously convicted of murder.

The murder of two or more persons, where each murder involves any of the following—

  • a substantial degree of premeditation or planning,
  • the abduction of the victim, or
  • sexual or sadistic conduct,

May’s proposal would be to move the starting point for murder of a police officer from the 30 year bracket to the whole life bracket.


Will it work?

If by work, you mean stop people murdering police officers, then almost certainly no. There are about an average of one murder of a police officer a year in the last decade. There is nothing to suggest that the starting point of ‘whole life’ rather than ’30 years’ would have made the slightest difference.


Why is it being introduced?

The cynic could point to the fact that she was heckled at last year’s conference and was looking for some populist meat to throw out to the rank and file this year.

We looked at some of the issues around this in relation to the Tia Sharp murder, as well as whether whole life tariffs are wrong in principle here.

Does it make sense? Certainly killing a police officer, someone serving the public, should be an aggravating feature. But, why should the starting point for a firefighter or ambulance driver be 15 years, a prison officer 30 years and a police officer now whole life?

Currently, the murder of a child has a starting point of 15 years, is it right against that backdrop that killing a police officer has a whole life tariff?

There are many other anomalies that can be pointed to. These anomalies stem from the relatively rigid guidelines of Schedule 21 Criminal Justice Act 2003 (which is the part that Ms May wishes to amend).

Prior to that, there were two categories – ‘standard’ and ‘serious’ murders, with starting points for the tariff of 12 and 16 years respectively (but with lots of flexibility within that). Instead of making the guidelines more and more intricate, is it not best to return to the old way, with the ability to reflect the seriousness of the facts of the case as they are, without having to measure it against Parliamentary guidelines?



This entry was posted in In the news on by .

About Dan Bunting

I'm a lawyer who works for myself. Legal geek, maths freak, general dullard and jack of all trades. Here’s a few views on law and occasional musings on life. Usual caveats about not relying on anything I say etc applies.

5 thoughts on “Whole Life Tariffs for Police Killers?

  1. Adam Shire

    First of all let’s start with the background to Mr Bunting’s analysis: the system, particularly with violent offences is a little like the job of Thames dredger, generally clearing the silt for boats to navigate safely (innocent people to live their lives) but every now and again finding a precious artefact which should be salvaged. Those are the accused who are innocent or who have a worthy defence for the sentencing.

    The public, who you will meet in all real-life forums up and down the country, are right to argue that we should now send a clear message to those who lose restraint and so kill: life is life. A forewarning: do it, we will never again see you in mainstream society. Of course the old system of judges and juries weighing the facts (on the sentence and on murder/manslaughter) was in one way better, since 2003 we leave it to squarely to politicians to be tempted to interfere and start holding out one sector of the community as more important or vulnerable than any other (as articulated well by Dan). Or one defence as shoddy and overused.

    The flaw in the old system was the 12 and 16 year tariff. Life should mean life, let us take that as absolute. The issue is to allow for new partial defences to be brought in, following the NSW lead and others, taking the latest psychological evidence on societal and personal justifications for offences. Already I can conceive of three additional first-degree manslaughters with heavy sentences which follows the Aussie example: provocation, substantial impairment (formerly, as here, ‘diminished responsibility’) and excessive self-defence. The last two are important developments which allow for a person’s long abused history and a fight/flight scenario to be taken into account.

    I remain far from convinced that killing anyone without any of these defences being proven should result in anything other than psychiatric analysis and treatments in Broadmoor in combination with prison (which by the way should be more economically productive, even if just growing in-demand crops for people to eat).

    I am not yet at the Bar however I certainly would be reluctant to act in a case of homicide given the unsatisfactory nature of the starting-point and the defences as they stand.

  2. Adam Shire

    By the way everyone is not deceived by an Orwellian 1984-style fiction on what the starting point is, they know that life does not mean life here due to the Parole Board.

  3. Andrew

    When you are at the Bar, Adam, you will take what you are sent and give it your best shot.

    Making the prisons more economically productive – not easy without undermining free workers. It’s an old problem. How about the treadmill to feed into the National Grid?

  4. Pingback: Review of 2013 | UK Criminal Law Blog

  5. stephen chippendale

    all killers of any person working for the public good ,should recieve a full life sentance,also child killers.we are too soft on them what about the victims,they are always the losers.


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