On 28 July the Ministry of Justice published its consultation paper "Murder, manslaughter and infanticide: proposals for the reform of the law". All responses have to be received by 20 October. Lawyers are busy people, and much of the consultation period has fallen in school holidays when, like everyone else, they have family commitments. Could it be that the Ministry would prefer there to be few considered responses?
In 2004 the Law Commission, in a carefully considered report, advocated a thorough overhaul of the law. It proposed to distinguish between what would be labelled first-degree murder, the most serious cases in which there was a clear intention to kill or where death was obviously a possible outcome, and second-degree murder, those cases in which there is a lesser degree of culpability. First-degree murder would have a mandatory life sentence; a life sentence could also be imposed by the Judge for second-degree murder or he could give a fixed term of imprisonment, depending on the circumstances. Manslaughter would be restricted to cases where there has been some blame, but where the fatality was not intended. Evidence of provocation and diminished responsibility could have the effect of reducing first-degree murder to second-degree murder, not to manslaughter. It is right, said the Law Commission, for those who kill to be labelled murderers.
The Government is having none of this, but is introducing changes to satisfy the feminist lobby. They are not proposing to re-define murder as suggested by the Law Commission - too difficult perhaps, or too much trouble - but they propose to abolish the partial defence of provocation, which at present can reduce a murder charge to one of manslaughter, replacing it with a new partial defence of killing in response to a fear of serious violence and killing "in response to words and conduct which caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged". Sexual infidelity is specifically excluded as a reason which can be put forward for a defendant's loss of self-control, and whereas previously the loss of self-control in response to provocation had to be sudden and temporary, the Government would like "slow-burn" responses associated with domestic abuse cases to be excusable.