Sentences for offenders who commit crimes that lead to the death of an emergency service worker are coming under increased public scrutiny.

The Harper’s Law campaign, originally named ‘Andrew’s Law’, wants anyone who is found guilty of killing an emergency service worker as a direct result of a crime to receive a life sentence. Harper’s Law would deem emergency service workers to include police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, prison officers and paramedics.

Lissie Harper launched the campaign following the death of her husband PC Andrew Harper. PC Harper was killed whilst on duty when responding to an incident in Berkshire in August 2019. The defendants Henry Long, Jessie Cole and Albert Bowers were found guilty of manslaughter following a trial at the Old Bailey. Henry Long was convicted for 16 years, whilst Jessie Cole and Albert Bowers received 13 years each. The Attorney General has since referred the sentences to the Court of Appeal to consider if they were unduly lenient.

A similar campaign launched by PC Harper’s mother, Andrew’s Law UK, is also seeking to change sentencing in England and Wales. Andrew’s Law UK is calling for a minimum sentence of 20 years for offenders who seriously injure or kill a police officer whilst committing a crime.

Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row (Conservative) is due to ask the Government what plans it has to introduce a new sentencing tariff for those who commit a crime and kill a member of the emergency services as a result. This oral question is scheduled to take place on 1 October 2020.

What is the “minimum term” or “tariff” of a sentence?

Where a court imposes a life sentence, it must set a minimum term, also known as a ‘tariff’. This is the minimum amount of time that an offender must spend in prison before becoming eligible to apply to the Parole Board for consideration of release.

When a court imposes a life sentence on a defendant who has been convicted of murder, a judge will decide the minimum term based on guidance set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Offenders who are convicted of manslaughter do not always receive a life sentence. In cases where a life sentence is imposed for manslaughter, judges will consider the same guidance when determining the minimum term for a life sentence for those convicted of manslaughter, as determined by the case of R v Wood [2009] EWCA Crim 651.

What is a life sentence?

The term ‘life sentence’ refers to several types of sentences that are given to offenders convicted of the most serious crimes. A life sentence means that an offender will be subject to that sentence for the rest of their life, although it does not necessarily mean they will serve the rest of their life in prison. The two main types of life sentence are mandatory life sentences and discretionary life sentences.

Mandatory life sentences

A mandatory life sentence must be given to all offenders found guilty of murder in England and Wales. This has been the case since the suspension of the death penalty in 1965. For mandatory life sentences, courts will set a minimum term that an offender must serve in prison before being considered for release. The offender will only be released once this minimum term has been served and with the Parole Board’s approval. If the Parole Board gives permission for release, the offender will spend the rest of their life on licence in the community. The offender can be recalled to prison if the National Probation Service considers them to be a risk to the public. They do not need to have committed another offence.

For the year 2016, the Government said that the average minimum term given to offenders who received mandatory life sentences for murder was 21.3 years.

Offenders who are convicted of the most serious cases of murder can receive a whole life order. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘whole life tariff’ and means the offender will never be released from prison. Notable offenders who have received whole life orders include Peter Sutcliffe (‘the Yorkshire Ripper’) and Harold Shipman (‘Dr Death’). In June 2020, the Ministry of Justice offender management statistics showed that there were 63 offenders serving whole life orders at the end of June 2020.

Prior to November 2002, the Home Secretary had the power to set the minimum term for mandatory life sentences. Following a successful appeal in Anderson v Secretary of State [2003] 1 AC 837, this practice was declared unlawful. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 now requires minimum terms to be set by the courts.

Discretionary life sentences

There are several serious offences, such as manslaughter, rape or robbery, for which the maximum sentence available is life imprisonment. Discretionary life sentences are not automatically imposed, but are available if a judge believes that the circumstances of an offence warrant such a sentence.

Similar to mandatory life sentences, a judge will set a minimum term that an offender subject to a discretionary life sentence must serve in prison. Once the minimum term has been completed, the offender can be released on licence into the community with the permission of the Parole Board. The offender can be recalled to prison if they are considered a risk to the public or if licence conditions are broken.

Offences against emergency service workers

In England and Wales, there are examples of provisions that apply to offences committed against the emergency services. This includes instances where a police officer or prison officer is murdered in the course of their duty. Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides the starting points that courts should consider when determining the minimum term of a mandatory life sentence for murder. The guidance states that, for offenders aged over 21 who murder a police or prison officer in the course of their duty, the court’s starting point for the minimum term should be a whole life order. The court will then assess aggravating and mitigating factors to determine the final minimum term.

Legislation was also introduced in 2018 for assaults against the emergency services. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, the Crown Prosecution Service said, was to ensure a more “effective investigation and prosecution of cases where emergency workers are the victim of crime”. The act enables anyone who is found guilty of assaulting an emergency service worker to be given a maximum sentence of 12 months imprisonment. Prior to this, the maximum sentence available was six months imprisonment. Following the commencement of the act, the Government launched a consultation in July 2020 seeking views on whether the maximum penalty available for the offence of assaulting an emergency service worker should be increased to two years’ imprisonment. The Government is yet to publish the outcome of the consultation.

Next steps

Since its launch, the Harper’s Law campaign has received support from the Police Federation of England and Wales. A petition in support of the campaign has also attracted over 654,000 signatures. The Deputy Chief Constable from Cumbria Constabulary, Mark Webster, is also cited by the News and Star as welcoming any legislation that would protect emergency workers.

Lissie Harper met the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary to discuss the campaign’s proposals on 2 September 2020. The BBC cites Ms Harper as saying “[…] clearly [the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary] want to support [Harper’s Law] in trying to achieve this so I am very encouraged”. To date, the Government has not published an official comment.

Image by Alberto Sanchez on Pixabay.