Harper’s Law – blurring the boundaries of homicide?

This post has been contributed by Dr Laura Lammasniemi, Associate Professor, Law School of University of Warwick.

Harper’s law, due to become law in early 2022, introduces mandatory life sentences for anyone convicted of manslaughter of an emergency worker while committing a crime, a sentence that so far has been reserved for murder. While emergency workers deserve all the protection law can afford, can this law lead to injustice?

Police law bike

Harper’s law was introduced after the horrific death of PC Andrew Harper. Harper was a 28 year old police officer who had been married only a month before he was killed. On the fatal night, PC Harper had responded to reports of theft of a quad bike. The three teenagers who had stolen the bike were towing it away when Harper approached. When they realised police were closing in on them, they released the bike and attempted to drive off. PC Harper got caught in the towing strap and was dragged over a mile behind the car. He suffered catastrophic injuries and died.

The defendants were acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter. They were all given custodial sentences varying from 13 to 19 years in length.

PC Harper’s widow, Lissie Harper, argues these sentences were far too lenient, calling the sentences a ‘despicable wrong’. She started a long campaign for a law reform, to ensure that those who kill emergency workers in the line of duty would receive automatic life sentences. The campaign for Harper’s law gained support of many politicians, and is due to be implemented in early 2022.

Harper’s law has been criticised for being a knee-jerk reaction used by politicians for easy political point-scoring. I must add that criticism of the law is by no means a criticism of Lissie Harper or the campaign she ran. Lissie Harper’s anger and desire for change is more than understandable. It is for the Parliament to scrutinise and pass laws that are good, workable, and just.

Police London City

At times, a difficult case exposes a clear flaw in the criminal justice system. There are numerous laws that have been introduced after such cases. For example, Clare’s law, formally known as Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, gives the public the right to ask the police if their partner may pose a risk to them. It was introduced after Clare Woods was brutally murdered by a man who was known to police for violence against women.

Yet, law cannot always be changed to respond to individual cases, no matter how unsatisfying the outcome for individuals, or just because a victim wishes the law was different.

The key argument of the campaign for Harper’s law was that people who put themselves at risk to protect others deserve a more protection than an ordinary citizen. But does this law create such additional protection? Longer sentences do not work as a deterrent (see here or here). Furthermore, as these are cases of manslaughter, rather than cases of intentional killing, it is hard to see how the law would deter actions that the defendant did not intend.

Defendants should be prosecuted and sentenced for what they have done, no more and no less. Under the new law, a defendant who hits or pushes a police or ambulance worker who subsequently falls down, hits their head and dies, would receive a mandatory life sentence.

Murder is a particularly serious offence as the defendant intended to kill or to cause grievous bodily harm. To reflect this severity, it carries a mandatory life sentence. Manslaughter, in contrast, requires no such intent. Sentencing for manslaughter is discretional, with possible sentences varying from no custodial sentence to life imprisonment. This discretion reflects the broadness of the offence and range of scenarios that are covered by the offence.

Harper’s Law removes that discretion from judges in cases of manslaughter and blurs the distinction between murder and manslaughter.

Read more:
Government to introduce ‘Harper’s Law’ (Government Press release) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-to-introduce-harper-s-law

To read more about the campaign, see ‘PC Andrew Harper’s widow wins bid to change law’ BBC News 24 November 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-59394783


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