Manslaughter, aggravated assault or murder

Manslaughter, aggravated assault and murder are all serious and complex crimes, which involve a number of factors influencing both the court proceedings and the eventual outcome. Manslaughter and murder are acts resulting in the death of another person. Aggravated assault is a serious, violent attack but does not result in the death of the victim. This is the most significant distinction between the three.

There are three main categories of offences where English law deals with the death of a person or persons. The distinction between them often comes down to whether the consequence i.e. the death of the person, was caused intentionally, recklessly or, in certain rare circumstances “accidentally” with limited fault on the person responsible. These categories are very complicated and will often overlap. They need to be considered carefully and forensically depending on the circumstances and how the death was caused, who was “responsible” or perhaps caused what may have been a sequence of events that may have led to the fatality concerned. The two main categories are:

  1. Murder
  2. Manslaughter

The third, catch all category, is grouped together because the level of criminal blame and culpability is less than for murder or manslaughter. It includes causing or allowing death of a child or vulnerable adult, corporate manslaughter or offences where it is said a person’s driving may have resulted in death.


Murder is the most serious offence where the law deals with the death of a person or persons. It is not defined by statute, but by common law and is generally understood to be when one person, who otherwise is shown to be of ‘sound mind’, unlawfully and with intention kills another.

The actus reus (all elements of a crime other than state of mind of the defendant) of murder is the unlawful killing of a human being.

The mens rea (the state of mind of the defendant) of murder is malice aforethought, which is interpreted by the courts as meaning intention to kill. However, if the accused is said to have intended to have inflicted grievous bodily harm with intent, but rather than just cause really serious injury the victim then dies, it will be said that he is guilty of murder. In practice, this may occur when a serious assault takes place resulting in life threatening injuries, and yet despite medical intervention the victim dies, even if that is many months later.

All murder cases are heard by the Crown Court. It is up to the Jury to decide whether they are satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that a death was caused by the accused and that he or she either intended to cause that death or grievous bodily harm, if so satisfied and in the absence of a defence, the Jury will convict the accused of murder. A murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence. The judge passing sentence cannot pass a lesser sentence no matter how mitigating the circumstances might be, but they will set a ‘Tariff’—a minimum amount of time that a person must serve in prison before they can be considered for release, subject to the person’s behaviour in prison, for example.

There are three partial defences to murder, which may reduce the conviction to manslaughter:

  1. Diminished responsibility
  2. Provocation / Loss of control
  3. Suicide pact


Manslaughter is a complex offence and can be defined in two ways:

  1. Voluntary manslaughter
  2. Involuntary manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter is committed when the defendant may have killed with an intention to kill but where a partial defence applies, which as mentioned above, reduces the crime from murder to manslaughter. The three partial defences are:

  1. Diminished responsibility

    Where the defence of diminished responsibility is successfully pleaded, it reduces the murder conviction by removing malice aforethought. I.e. the defendant will have diminished responsibility due to mental illness, which provides an explanation for their act. To establish this defence and negate the specific intent that is a vital ingredient to a murder conviction, it will be necessary to obtain and serve complex medical evidence as to the state of mind of the accused at the time of the offence and leading up to it.

  2. Provocation / Loss of control

    Where there is evidence that an act was provoked immediately before the offence, which was as such to make a ‘reasonable man’ do as the defendant did and lose self-control. The loss of control must relate to the act done and cannot be viewed as a retaliatory act or one of revenge. It must have negated the ability of the accused to properly control his or her behaviour, such that at the time the accused did the act his or her behaviour was triggered by something that the laws has defined the circumstances as having to be of an “extremely grave character and having caused justifiable sense of being seriously wronged”. It is possible that the “fear of serious violence from the victim” can itself amount to a loss of self-control, even if it is not enough to provide a defence of “self-defence”.

  3. Suicide pact

    A suicide pact is a common agreement between two or more persons, the objective being the death of all of them. The accused must have intended to die in the pact and is shown compassion by being accused of manslaughter rather than murder.

Involuntary manslaughter is charged when death is caused by the defendant’s recklessness, gross negligence or by an unlawful and/or dangerous act. The death is unintentional but has been caused through recklessness or criminal negligence. The most common scenario of involuntary manslaughter is where the accused has assaulted an individual not intending to kill them or cause them really serious injury, but where death did result. For example, the case of “one punch” assaults, whereby the accused has struck the victim once to the face using a clenched fist, but the victim has fallen to the floor, striking their head on the kerb and causing severe head truma, which in turn causes death. In this scenario, it would be clear that the accused did not intend to inflict really serious injury or kill the victim but that the consequence i.e. the death, was a reckless result of the initial assault.

Unlike murder, there is no mandatory sentence for manslaughter, but the maximum sentence a judge can impose is life imprisonment. The judge may impose other sentences including a prison sentence, suspended imprisonment or community service—the decision will depend on the surrounding factors, and take into account age and previous convictions.

Aggravated Assault

Aggravated assault is a serious and violent form of assault. The defendant will have intended to:

  1. Cause serious bodily injury to another person
  2. Have sexual relations with a person who is under the age of consent
  3. Cause bodily harm by recklessly operating a motor vehicle during road rage (vehicular assault)

Aggravated assault is not considered homicide as it does not result in the death of a victim. However, it is committed with an extreme indifference to the value of human life and often bodily injury is caused by a deadly weapon.

Manslaughter, aggravated assault and murder are all serious charges, with the potential for life-changing consequences. Not only should you seek legal advice as soon as possible, but it is also imperative to work with your solicitor to provide all the facts of the case. With the proper advice and expert assistance, there are occasions when the most serious offence of murder can be properly reduced to one of manslaughter or otherwise. As always, early advice from experts who specialise in this highly complex and serious area of the law is vital. This way, you have the best chance to achieve a more favourable outcome, based on the evidence provided. Lawtons Solicitors is here to help and guide you through the whole process.