Murder & Manslaughter

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The law defines murder as where one person, of sound mind, unlawfully takes another’s life with the intention to kill or to cause grievous bodily harm. This crime is considered to be the most serious form of homicide, as well as the most serious crime in English law.

There are a range of defences that can be used to defend a person who has been accused of murder, and may reduce the charge to manslaughter (see below). These include, but are not limited to:

    • Self defence – when the defendant has used reasonable force to protect themselves against another person, and the victim has been killed as a result.
    • Diminished responsibility – the defendant did mean to kill the victim, but this was because of a mental incapacity or temporary insanity.
    • Loss of control – this is not a general defence, and applies only for murder cases.

The Actus Reus and Mens Rea of Murder

In the eyes of the law, for a person to have committed a murder, they must meet the following criteria. This is known as the Actus Reus of murder.

The victim must have been a ‘person in being’ at the time of their death. This means that they have been unlawfully killed, and that they are not in utero. The victim must also have actually died. If they are still alive, even gravely injured, the charge is Attempted Murder. The victim’s death must have been directly caused by the act (or failure to act) of the defendant.

The defendant must also have the intention to kill, or cause serious injury. This is known as the Mens Rea of murder.  If elements of the Mens Rea  or Actus Reus are found to be missing from the case – for example, if the victim’s death was not directly and intentionally caused by the defendant’s action or there was no clear intention to kill, the defendant may instead be charged with manslaughter.


There are a number of circumstances that may commute the crime to that of manslaughter, including:

  • Proof that the person was provoked immediately before the act that caused the death took place. This is sometimes referred to as a “sudden loss of control”.
  • Proof that the person that caused the death of the victim had not done so intently but recklessly, for example.
  • Proof that the individual has suffered diminished responsibility due to a mental illness. In these types of cases, complex psychiatric evidence is required.

There are two types of manslaughter – voluntary and involuntary – depending on the case for mens rea.

Voluntary manslaughter

A charge of voluntary manslaughter might occur if the defendant had the intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm – the aforementioned mens rea. However, a partial defence can reduce murder to a manslaughter charge.

Two changes in law affected the charge of manslaughter. The Homicide Act 1957 introduced two defences that could be used in court, diminished responsibility and suicide pact. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 also created the defence of ‘sudden loss of control’.

Involuntary manslaughter

This is when the accused did not intend to kill, but caused death through recklessness or criminal negligence. An example of this would be two people in a physical fight, where one is pushed to the floor, sustaining a fatal injury to their skull.

In this example, the intent to kill wasn’t there, and it could be argued that the push was initially in self-defence. Therefore the mens rea required for murder isn’t applicable, as the act did not involve the intention to kill.

Death by dangerous driving is another common charge that falls under involuntary manslaughter.

Punishments for Murder and Manslaughter

The law in England and Wales dictates that the mandatory sentence for murder is life imprisonment.

During the trial, it is up to the jury to decide whether, beyond reasonable doubt, the alleged committed the act of murder. The judge must then set a minimum amount of time the defendant has to serve before they are eligible for release. However, the amount of time spent in prison depends on a variety of factors, including behaviour while incarcerated.

Punishments for manslaughter, on the other hand, can be much more varied and depend on the specific actions of the defendant and the circumstances of the death. Most commonly, those convicted of manslaughter can expect to be imprisoned for between two and ten years, or to receive a custodial sentence suspended for up to two years, or to be ordered to undertake community service.

How DPP Law can help

If you’re suspected of murder or you or your business have been the subject of manslaughter allegations,  DPP Law can help. Our dedicated team of lawyers are on hand to provide you with professional legal advice and representation, and will put together a reliable defence to obtain the best possible outcome for your case. Contact us today for a free, confidential discussion about your case.

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