Make it make sense: Is Harper’s Law a fair and judicious proposal?

My previous posts have touched on the principle of legitimacy. It underlines that those who propose or support an ‘inherently illegitimate’ law must ‘squarely declare what they are doing’ (Lord Sumption, The Reith Lectures 2019). Likewise, those opposing a Law/proposal which – in its social context – is popular, must also squarely declare why. This post will justify the unfairness of Harper’s Law while doing so.

In gruesome circumstances, PC Andrew Harper died after being dragged continuously by a car during a burglary. Whilst chasing the suspects, the officer accidentally stepped on the tow rope trailing behind the escaping vehicle. As a result, the officer got lassoed to the vehicle and dragged for over a mile, leading to his death. 

Although the convicts did not stop after PC Harper got attached to the vehicle, they claimed they did not intentionally kill the officer and were unaware that the vehicle was dragging a human body. Ergo, they were charged with manslaughter and sentenced to a maximum of 16 years in prison.

Following these events, Lissie Harper – Andrew Harper’s widow – while arguing that the sentences were ‘woefully insufficient’, proposed that the law on Homicide be changed by suggesting Harper’s law:

Understanding the unfair and irrational nature of this proposal would necessitate an examination of two fundamental distinctions in the law on Homicide – Murder and Manslaughter. While both offences lead to the victim’s death, the circumstances leading to the death distinguish the crimes.

Several elements must be present for a crime to be considered murder:

Unlawful Act Manslaughter – which PC Harper’s killers were charged for – involves the following:

It is the presence – or absence – of the intent to kill that majorly distinguishes both offences. Murder involves killing someone intentionally. Unlawful Act Manslaughter involves the unintentional killing of the victim as a result of a deliberate cause of events which ‘inadvertently’ cause death.

Lissie Harper drew a comparison with the Law in Ireland to substantiate her suggestion:

As Barrister Matthew Scott pointed out, ‘whatever our views on the sentence, we should be wary of changing the Law in response to one single case, however dreadful.’ Effectuating Harper’s Law would remove the essential distinction between Murder and Manslaughter when dealing with the death of an emergency worker. A straight life sentence. No ifs, no buts. 

Consider this – A restaurateur, by misplacing peanuts for almonds, kills a customer. Harper’s Law would mandate a life sentence for such an offence. This person would receive the same sentence that a person would if they intentionally and horrendously mutilate a child.

Mandating a life sentence for both is unfair and irrational to the hilt, even more so if only applied when emergency workers are killed. The title of a person should have no bearing on the way we think about and apply legal principles. Should the manslaughter of a firefighter killed by an accidental push of a lively teenager carry a life sentence, when that of a landlord who poisons his tenants by providing them drinking water knowing it contains concentrated chlorine does not? 

Furthermore, Schedule 21 of the Sentencing Act 2020 mandates a life sentence for those who are guilty of murdering anyone. It sets out the minimum term/period an offender must spend in prison before being considered for release. A court must consider the murder of a police officer as ‘exceptionally serious’, and a whole life order (life in prison without parole) is the ‘appropriate starting point’ in such cases (Section 2(2)(c)). It would be deemed an aggravating factor if the victim died while performing a public service (Section 9(f)) if a whole life order cannot be granted.

The jobs of emergency workers are inherently hazardous. They deserve protection; however, changing the law will not make their jobs any less risky. This is another instance of the Mikado Syndrome, as suggested by Lord Neuberger. An ordinance providing a mandatory life sentence for murder already exists. Changing this law would not assist in attenuating the inherent dangers of work. The belief that a problem could be dealt with by introducing legislation has to be done away with immediately.

Make it make sense!