What to do if you’ve been charged with manslaughter

Nick Titchener headshot

Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Manslaughter is an extremely serious crime, with lengthy sentences reflecting the gravity of the offence. Here we help you understand the crime and the steps you should take next if you’ve been charged with it.

Manslaughter charges – why you need immediate legal advice

Needless to say, to face an accusation of taking someone’s life is distressing and potentially life-changing. We realise the pressure it puts people under and, having defended many people against manslaughter charges, we also understand what you must do next.

It’s absolutely crucial that you get in touch with a specialist manslaughter solicitor as soon as possible. With manslaughter carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, you need sound legal advice at the very outset of your case. Expert solicitors can prevent you from incriminating yourself, advise what you should and shouldn’t speak about and use their experience to secure the best legal outcome available.

What is manslaughter? 

Like murder, manslaughter involves the accused causing the death of another person. Both fall under the broad umbrella of homicide.

One of the primary differences between manslaughter and murder is what was intended by the person accused. Manslaughter is either when the accused did not intend to cause serious harm or death – or they cannot be held responsible for their actions, for example, due to the fact that they are considered to be of diminished responsibility due to a mental illness.

In cases of murder, the accused must have:

  • Unlawfully killed someone, without a justification such as self-defence
  • Intended to kill or cause grievous bodily harm 
  • Be of sound mind and discretion

If it cannot be proven that the accused meant to kill or cause grievous bodily harm, the defendant will be charged with involuntary manslaughter. There are two types of involuntary manslaughter:

Gross negligence manslaughter: When gross negligence – a failure to act – leads to someone’s death. An example of this might be medical manslaughter, if a doctor or nurse causes the death of a patient through medical malpractice.

Unlawful act manslaughter: When an unlawful or dangerous act causes a death. This might be giving somebody a drug that subsequently kills them, for instance.

Voluntary manslaughter is when the accused did intend to cause some harm, but not serious harm or to kill the victim. Alternatively, perhaps they did kill the victim, but at the time of doing so they were not of sound mind, or they suffered a loss of control due to provocation. Possible scenarios for voluntary manslaughter may include the accused fearing the threat of serious violence or having diminished responsibility due to abnormal mental functioning.

What’s the difference between manslaughter and murder?

Aside from the question of intent, one of the other main differences between murder and manslaughter is that only individuals can commit murder. According to UK law, when a death is caused by a company or organisation – such as a work-related accident – it cannot be a case of murder. Instead, the crime is referred to as ‘corporate manslaughter’.

Additionally, while attempted murder is a crime, there is no equivalient for manslaughter. The crime of manslaughter can only be committed when the accused has actually killed somebody.

There is also the question of sentencing: the intent behind murder means that guilty parties receive significantly longer sentences. Murder carries a mandatory life sentence, although those convicted of murder are usually eligible for parole after a substantial portion of that life sentence has passed.

What is the typical sentence for manslaughter?

Whereas judges must pass a mandatory life sentence for murder, there is much more scope for interpretation and discretion in manslaughter cases. 

Before deciding upon the sentence in a gross negligence case, a judge will determine the accused’s level of culpability and then apply guidelines from the Sentencing Council. A lower level of culpability might exist in cases where the negligent act was an uncharacteristic lapse or the defendant’s responsibility was reduced by a mental disorder or learning disability.

The absolute minimum sentence in manslaughter cases is a community order, with the minimum prison term usually around the two-year mark. Although the maximum sentence available to judges is a life sentence in prison, the average sentence for manslaughter is much closer to 2-10 years in prison. Sometimes, suspended prison sentences are handed down.

For corporate manslaughter, the penalty will be a fine. It’s important to note that the fine issued does not represent the value of a human life in money. 

What factors can determine the length of manslaughter sentences?

As previously mentioned, the length of a sentence for gross negligence manslaughter hinges upon the level of culpability. There are four different levels, ranging from very high culpability to low culpability. A very high level of culpability might be indicated by other criminal behaviour, hiding the victim’s body or continuing the negligent conduct despite it causing obvious suffering.

Naturally, hiding any evidence or withholding information will not be looked upon favourably. Pleading guilty early on in proceedings, meanwhile, can significantly reduce the sentence passed, since it can save all parties time and money. The reduction could be up to a third of the sentence if it comes early enough. Reductions can be implemented at any time up until the first day of a trial.

As with any serious crime, judges also look for the accused to show remorse if they plead guilty. While previous convictions will, of course, be taken into account, as will your reputation. The threat you could pose to the general public is another factor that will influence sentencing.

There is also room for judges to show compassion for your personal circumstances. If you have a serious medical treatment – particularly one requiring long-term, urgent or intensive treatment – the judge will always bear that in mind. The impact of your sentence on any dependents will also be carefully considered, especially if you’re a sole or primary caregiver.

How likely is a life sentence for manslaughter?

It’s quite unusual to see a life sentence handed down for manslaughter. Much more likely is a custodial sentence of between 2 and 10 years. 

However, with each case being unique and judges being able to interpret guidelines, it’s always difficult to predict sentences. The best course of action is always to seek expert legal advice, enlisting the help of solicitors who can minimise the length of your sentence.

What are the defences to manslaughter?

If you’ve been charged with gross negligence manslaughter, your solicitors may be able to argue that your actions were not so negligent as to be considered grossly negligent. In the case of a medical malpractice case, for example, a doctor or nurse might contest that the care given to the deceased was suboptimal but not bad enough to be classed as manslaughter.

With regards to unlawful act manslaughter, defence solicitors might seek to prove that a defendant’s actions would not be considered dangerous by a reasonable person.

General defences, such as self-defence and insanity, can also be applicable to fight charges of manslaughter.

What should you do if you’re charged with manslaughter? 

Regardless of the specific circumstances surrounding your case, if you’ve been accused of manslaughter or charged with it, you need the guidance of a specialist manslaughter solicitor – immediately. It’s vital to have legal representation when you speak to the police.

We can guide you through a deeply distressing time, detailing the legal process and how you can help your cause. And, of course, we will put all our energy and experience into giving you a thorough, compelling defence, achieving the best possible legal outcome for you.

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