On the face of it, the sentence imposed on Mick Philpott today seemed lenient.
He was found guilty, along with his wife and another, of starting a fire which killed six children.
In those circumstances, the reported fifteen years appeared inappropriate: it would mean little over two years for each dead child.
However, Philpott was not found guilty of murdering the children.
Had he done so, he would have received a sentence at least as heavy as the one imposed today, and possibly one significantly higher.
But he was instead found guilty of manslaughter, and that was an important difference.
There are many types of manslaughter in English law.
One thing they have in common is that the cuplrit responsible for the death did not have sufficient “mens rea” (or culpable state of mind) for the charge of murder.
Philpott got the maximum sentence available for manslaughter: the so-called “life” sentence.
As such, there was not a more onerous sentence which an English court could impose.
However, “life” does not necessarily mean life in terms of incarceration, though it can do. So a judge imposing any life sentence also has to set a minimum period of imprisonment which must be served before there is any posible question of parole. (Although the prisoner may not then get parole once that period has ended.)
In the Philpott case, the judge held that the “determinative” sentence (the sentence which would have been served by Philpott had she not imposed a life sentence) would have been thirty years.
She then added:
I am required by Parliament to halve that to reflect that were this a determinate sentence you would serve only half. The minimum period you must therefore serve before you are considered for parole is one of 15 years.
The “minimum” of fifteen years needs thereby to be seen in context: a life sentence was imposed, and had a life sentence not been imposed then a sentence of thirty years would have been. The difference is that with a life sentence, any parole period will last for the rest of his life, whilst any parole with a thirty year sentence ends at with that thirtieth year.
But there is another context.
The sentence of life with a minimum of fifteen years would appear to be one of the heaviest sentences ever imposed for a conviction for manslaughter.
The only other examples which I and others could find today are of the cannibal serial killer Peter Bryan (life with a minimum of fifteen years on appeal) and Mohamed Boudjenane (life with a minimum of sixteen years on a re-trial after the quashing of a murder conviction). (Hat tips Lyndon Harris and Simon Taylor.)
Both of these sentences were for a different type of manslaughter, those which are committed with diminished responsibility.
The case of Philpott is different from that of Bryan or Boudjenane: there was no “diminished responsibility” which prevented a murder conviction – the lack of mens rea for murder here was not because of any mental illness.
Accordingly, the sentence imposed on Philpott appears to be the heaviest ever imposed for manslaughter, other than in cases of diminished responsibility.
A straight thirty year sentence for Philpott would have sounded harsher; but he would only have to serve half before release.
A life sentence with a minimum of fifteen years instead means only the possibility of parole after fifteen years. It is a paradox but life with a minimum of fifteen years is harsher than a straight sentence of thirty years.
The irony is that had the judge imposed a thirty year sentence, she may well have avoided much of the criticism her sentencing received today.