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  • Rai Gill


Murder is the most serious offence in criminal law: the unlawful killing of another with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.

Manslaughter, however, is also an offence of unlawful killing. So what is the difference between manslaughter and murder? Essentially, the distinction lies in the intent behind the killing, and can take on one of three forms:

  1. A murder that is reduced to manslaughter by virtue of one of three partial defences: loss of control; diminished responsibility; or suicide pact;

  2. An unlawful act which either intentionally, or recklessly, causes harm to another resulting in death; or

  3. Grossly negligent conduct that results in the death of another.

Those in the first form are often called “voluntary manslaughter” (due to the existence of an intent to kill); whereas the second and third are known as “involuntary manslaughter” (due to a lack of express intent to kill).

All manslaughter offences carry a maximum (but not obligatory, like with murder) sentence of life imprisonment. Each case is decided upon its own facts when determining sentence. However, provided below are the sentence ranges that cover typical features in these sorts of cases, as advised by the Sentencing Council.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Loss of Control

It can be useful to remember that “loss of control” used to be known as “provocation”. This is when a defendant “sees red”, caused by a trigger event. However, the resulting action from the trigger event must be deemed what a “reasonable” person would have done in the same situation.

Sentence range: three to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Diminished Responsibility

This defence is based on the mental state of the defendant at the time the killing occurred. It is necessary for the defence to prove, with expert medical evidence, that at the time of the killing, the defendant’s rational judgment or exercise of control was substantially impaired. The extent to which the defendant’s mental state was impaired will bear upon the sentence received.

Sentence range: 15 to 40 years’ imprisonment.

Suicide Pact

When two or more individuals agree to commit suicide, a suicide pact is formed. Such a pact does not have to specify a joint time, location, or purpose, but it is necessary for at least one party to commit suicide, and another to have intended to die, but ultimately did not die.

Sentence range: none available due to rarity of suicide pact prosecutions.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Unlawful Act Manslaughter

The basis of this offence is the unlawful act. The defendant must perform an intentional action which is unlawful. This action must subject the victim, or create a risk to the victim, of some level of harm, which was foreseeable at the time the action was performed. This action must then result in the victim’s death.

Sentence range: 11 to 24 years’ imprisonment.

Manslaughter by Gross Negligence

Gross negligence is a difficult concept in criminal law, as negligence is usually an issue for the civil courts. However, for this offence, the Prosecution would need to prove that:

  1. The defendant owed a duty of care to the victims, which he negligently breached;

  2. When there was a serious and obvious risk of death which was reasonably foreseeable at the time; and

  3. The breach caused or made a significant contribution to the death of the victim.

Sentence range: 10 to 18 years’ imprisonment.

Legal disclaimer: Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein is accurate at the date of publication but please note that the law is ever changing and evolving. If you require advice in relation to any matter raised in this article please contact a member of the team.


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