What Is the Difference between Murder and Manslaughter?

By March 25, 2024 April 4th, 2024 Criminal Law
Murder and Manslaughter

Murder and manslaughter are two of the most serious crimes in the UK, and both carry significant penalties if a defendant is proven guilty. As they are closely related legal concepts that deal with the unlawful taking of another person’s life, the terms are often used interchangeably. Nevertheless, they have distinct differences in terms of intent, culpability and severity. Understanding these differences is crucial not only for legal professionals but also for anyone interested in the workings of the criminal justice system in the UK. 

So, what is the difference between murder and manslaughter?


Murder as Defined by UK Law 

In the United Kingdom, murder is defined as when a person of sound mind unlawfully kills another person with intent to kill or cause  grievous bodily harm. The act must be a substantial cause of death, but does not have to be the sole or principal cause of death.Penalty and Sentencing

As murder is one of the most serious crimes under UK law, it carries a mandatory life sentence upon conviction. If the offender was below the age of 18 at the time of the incident, a mandatory sentence of detention at His Majesty’s pleasure (which has a similar effect to life imprisonment) will be imposed. 

While murder carries  a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment, judges will set a minimum term, known as the ‘tariff’, that an offender must spend in prison before being considered for release by the Parole Board. The starting points for minimum terms are outlined in Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, with options of whole life, 30 years, 25 years and 15 years (12 years if the defendant was below the age of 18 at the time of the offence). 

Judges take into account aggravating and mitigating factors to adjust the length of the minimum term. After completing this term, the offender can be considered for release, but the Parole Board must determine that they pose no danger to society. Individuals serving life sentences are subject to a lifelong license, which permits their return to prison should they violate the terms of their license or engage in new criminal activities at any time.


Defences for Murder

When charged with murder, defendants may present various defences to mitigate their culpability or be acquitted of the crime. These defences can be categorised into complete defences and partial defences, each having distinct legal criteria and implications.

1. Complete defence

A complete defence to murder will result in the defendant being acquitted of the charge.  Self-defence or  defence of another person are complete defences to a charge of murder.

2. Partial defence – diminished responsibility

In criminal law, diminished responsibility is a partial defence to murder.  For this defence to succeed, a defendant must have been suffering from a mental abnormality at the time of the incident, which substantially impaired their ability to understand the nature of their actions or exercise self-control. The abnormality must come from a recognised medical condition (e.g. schizophrenia) and medical evidence is required.  If this defence is successful, the charge of murder may be reduced to voluntary manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

3. Partial defence – loss of control

The loss of control defence has three elements:

  • Loss of self-control
  • A qualifying trigger 
  • An objective test, namely, might a person of the defendant’s sex and age, with a normal degree of tolerance and self-restraint and in the circumstances the defendant was in, have acted in the same or a similar way to the defendant.  

The loss of control does not have to be sudden. The qualifying trigger must be due to the defendant’s fear of serious violence against them from the victim or another identifiable person and must be extremely grave in nature and to have caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged.  

4. Partial defence – suicide pact

In a case where two or more individuals enter into a suicide pact, and one survives while the other(s) dies, the survivor(s) may present the defence of a suicide pact. This can reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter, provided that the act was in pursuance of the pact and that there was a genuine intention to die.


What is Manslaughter? 

Manslaughter can be either voluntary or involuntary.

1. Voluntary manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when an individual  kills another with the intention to either kill or case grievous bodily harm but a partial defence applies; namely loss of control, diminished responsibility or killing pursuant to a suicide pact (see above). If successful, the partial defence reduces guilt for murder to guilt for manslaughter. .

For a crime of voluntary manslaughter to have occurred, the following elements must be present:

  • Intent – the defendant must have intended to kill or cause really serious harm to the victim
  • Provocation – the defendant must have experienced provocation or encountered a situation that would typically lead a rational person to react emotionally or impulsively.
  • Heat of passion – the defendant should not have had an adequate opportunity to calm down or regain their self-control between the provocation and the act of causing the victim’s death.
  • Causation – the victim’s death is a direct result of the defendant’s actions. 

2. Involuntary manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter involves the unlawful killing of another person without the intent to cause death but due to criminal negligence, recklessness or carelessness. This type of manslaughter often arises from unintentional actions that lead to a fatality, such as reckless driving, medical malpractice or failure to take reasonable precautions. Involuntary manslaughter can be divided two  subcategories, namely:

a. Gross negligence manslaughter

Gross negligence manslaughter occurs when the defendant’s grossly negligent conduct results in  a person’s death. There must be a breach of a duty of care which it is reasonably foreseeable gives rise to a serious and obvious risk of death and does in fact cause death.  The conduct of the defendant must amount to a criminal act or omission.This type of manslaughter could arise  where individuals or professionals, such as healthcare providers or employers, fail to meet the expected standard of care, and their actions result in a fatality.

b. Unlawful act manslaughter

Unlawful act manslaughter involves a death that occurs during the commission of an intentional unlawful act. In this type of manslaughter, the defendant commits a criminal act that is dangerous and unlawful, which ultimately leads to the death of another person. The critical element is that the unlawful act must be inherently dangerous and capable of causing harm, even if that harm was not the defendant’s intended outcome. An example could be an assault where death or serious injury was not intended but resulted in a fatality 


Sentencing and Legal Consequences

The penalties for manslaughter can vary depending on the specific circumstances of the case. Generally speaking, manslaughter carries a significant prison sentence, but it is typically less severe than the mandatory life sentence for murder. A judge may also impose other penalties such as a fine, probation, suspended sentence or community service.

One vital factor in determining the sentence is the category of manslaughter committed, whether it is voluntary or involuntary. The court may also consider other important factors, such as:

  • The defendant’s criminal record.
  • UK sentencing guidelines.
  • Aggravating factors, including the use of a weapon, the severity of harm to the victim and the vulnerability of the victim.
  • Mitigating factors such as evidence of good character, genuine remorse or acceptance of responsibility, and any medical and psychiatric conditions that may have influenced the defendant’s actions.

Seek Expert Legal Advice 

Understanding the legal distinctions between murder and manslaughter is essential for both legal professionals and anyone interested in the UK criminal justice system. While both crimes involve the unlawful taking of another person’s life, the intent, culpability and severity differ significantly. 

As murder and manslaughter are both serious crimes and carry severe penalties, it is imperative that you seek immediate legal advice if you have been accused of either offence. At Wheldon Law, our highly experienced lawyers can help you navigate the complexities of UK criminal law, providing expert legal guidance to help ensure a favourable outcome. Get in touch with us to receive free preliminary legal advice.