Murder and Voluntary Manslaughter

Murder and voluntary manslaughter are indictable and two of the most serious crimes a person can commit. However, there are a few crucial differences between the two that change the sentences considerably- while murder carries a mandatory life sentence, voluntary manslaughter does not due to the mitigating factors that are often involved.

The definition of murder is generally accepted as being "the unlawful killing of a reasonable being under the King/Queen's peace". This can be broken down into three parts. "A reasonable person in being" means that the person must be alive and able to exist on their own, as opposed to being dependant on machinery or the life of another human being. This can cause some moral issues- for example if a defendant were to stab a pregnant female, and her baby was stillborn as a direct result, then the defendant could not be convicted for the baby's death; however, if the baby was born, took a breath and died soon after birth, the defendant could be convicted of manslaughter according to the Attourney-General's Reference No 3 of 1994. For a killing to be unlawful(as opposed to lawful killing, e.g. killing an enemy soldier in battle or a burglar in self-defence), there must also be "malice aforethought"- the defendant must have fully intended to kill or seriously harm someone.

Voluntary manslaughter is slightly different in a few ways. While the mens rea of both murder and voluntary manslaughter require the intention to kill or seriously harm, a defendant may be able to be convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead if they can successfully plead one of two partial defences; loss of control(previously known as provocation) or diminished responsibility.

Diminished responsibility is often used in cases where insanity is too narrow a defence. Diminished responsibility was defined as meaning that the defendant must have "a state of mind so different from that of ordinary human beings that the reasonable man would term it abnormal". This can refer to many different conditions such as abnormally low IQ, post-natal depression(as shown in the case of R v Reynolds), sexual psychopathy(R v Byrne) and even pre-menstraul tension in extreme cases such as R v English. While the cause of a defendant's diminished responsibility must be a recognised medical condition, not all conditions that would hinder a person's reasoning qualify for diminished responsibility. Intoxication is also not considered a defence following the precedent of R v Tandy because if the first drink was voluntary, then it stands to reason that any events that took place while the defendant was intoxicated were also voluntary. Diminished responsibilty differs from insanity in that it allows a far wider range of conditions and that it includes problems caused by external issues as opposed to merely internal ones.

Loss of control, previously known as provocation, is when a defendant loses their self-control after being provoked. One example of this was the case of R v Camplin in which a fifteen year old boy was sexually abused by a fifty year old man and mocked about it later. In response, he hit the man over the head with a chapati pan and killed him. This case also shows that the reasonable man is not confined to the adult male, hence the need for the two tests for loss of control. This is also an illustration of one of the qualifying "triggers" that may cause a person to lose their control. In this case, the trigger would be the abuse and mockery as it was enough to make the defendant feel sufficiently wronged to lose his self control. The other triggers would be a fear of violence or a combination of the latter and severely grave circumstances as mentioned beforehand.

The first test for loss of control is the subjective test, which asks whether or not the subject lost control. The objective test asks whether or not, in the circumstances, a reasonable person would have lost their self-control. Both tests are essential as without the subjective test, there is still the possibility of murder, while without the objective test, there may have been an overreaction on the defendant's part. The provocation for the act must also be sufficiently large for the defence to work- for example, a person would not be successful in the plea if the provocation was sexual infidelity. This defence is also not availible if the defendant acted to gain revenge, deliberately encouraged the provocation so that they would be able to plead loss of control. Furthermore, all defendants in a case where the killing was committed by several people would not necessarily each be able to plead loss of control, even if one of them was.

Up until the 1990s, the loss of control had to be fairly immediate, but as of R v Thornton, it no longer matters whether or not there was a delay between the trigger and the act because "slow burn"(where the provocation was accumulated over a period of time) was acknowledged as resulting in loss of control. This overruled the case of R v Ahluwalia, in which the defendant set fire to her husband three hours after he threatened her(she was later able to appeal). Instead, the loss of control need only be sudden and temporary, as shown in both R v Ahluwalia and R v Thornton.

Another, lesser known defence is that of the suicide pact, which is defined in S4(3) of the Homicide Act as "a common agreement between two or more persons having for its object the death of all of them, whether or not each is to take his own life". For this defence to succeed, the defendant has to prove that there was "settled intention" to fulfil their side of the pact as opposed to entering the pact with no intention of comitting suicide. An example of this defence being used is the Trevor Royall case. Mr. Royall, aged 74, and his wife were in constant pain as a result of medical conditions; she had arthritis and he had a prostate condition. Once both had ingested pills and alcohol, Mr. Royall tied plastic bags around their heads. However, his was slightly too loose, and a neighbor found him, although his wife was dead by this point. The courts decided not to prosecute Mr. Royall as there had been no doubt about his intentions. However, normally, this would also be a partial defense- a defendant involved in a suicide pact would not be acquitted, but their conviction would be lessened to manslaughter.

In conclusion, voluntary manslaughter and murder, while having several similarities, have also got considerable differences. Consequently, the difference in sentencing is necessary and the two crimes must exist with seperate criteria, as a pre-planned murder does not deserve the same sentence as a defendant who is severely provoked or has a recognised condition which hinders their ability to act reasonably.