Manslaughter, aggravated assault or murder: What is the difference?

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner


Under English law there are three main categories of offence which deal with the death of a person or persons. The distinction between these offences often comes down to whether the consequence of the offence – the death of the person – was caused intentionally, recklessly or – in certain rare circumstances – ‘accidentally’, with limited fault on the part of 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 who perhaps caused what may have been a sequence of events that may have led to the fatality concerned.

How are manslaughter, aggravated assault and murder differentiated?

The two main categories of offence that lead to the death of a person are murder and manslaughter, with the third aggravated assault.  

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 of the case.

Manslaughter and murder are both acts which result in the death of another person. An 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 offences.

Aggravated assault is grouped together as the level of criminal blame and culpability is less than that for murder or manslaughter.

The offence includes:

  1. Causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult
  2. Corporate manslaughter
  3. Offences where it is said a person’s driving may have resulted in death (causing death by dangerous driving)

What is the definition of murder?

Murder is the most serious offence where the law deals with the death of a person or persons. It is not defined by statute, rather by common law.

It is generally understood to be when one person, who otherwise is shown to be of ‘sound mind’, unlawfully and with intention kills another person.

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 the victim then dies as a result of the assault, it will be said that the defendant 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.

Where are murder cases tried?

As an indictable offence, 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.

What is the sentence for 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.

What are the defences for murder?

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

  1. Diminished responsibility
  2. Provocation or loss of control
  3. Suicide pact

What is the definition of manslaughter?

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

  1. Voluntary manslaughter
  2. Involuntary manslaughter

The act of voluntary manslaughter is committed when the defendant may have killed with an intention to kill but where a partial defence applies. The partial defence – if successful –  reduces the offence from murder to manslaughter.

What are the partial defences for murder?

There are three partial defences for murder, which may reduce the offence to a manslaughter charge:

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

This defence can be utilised where there is evidence to suggest that an act was provoked immediately before the offence which was sufficient to make a ‘reasonable man’ do as the defendant did and lose self-control. The loss of control must relate to the act committed and cannot be viewed as a retaliatory act or one of revenge.

The act 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.

What is involuntary manslaughter?

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 caused by the defendant’s action 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 without the intention to kill them or cause them serious injury, but where death did result.

So-called ‘one punch’ assaults – whereby the accused has struck the victim once using a clenched fist but the victim has fallen to the floor, striking their head on the kerb causing severe head trauma which in turn causes death – are deemed as involuntary manslaughter. In this scenario, it would be clear that the accused did not intend to inflict serious injury or kill the victim but that the consequence -the death – was a reckless result of the initial assault.

What is the sentence for manslaughter?

Unlike murder, there is no mandatory sentence for manslaughter, but the maximum sentence a judge can impose if found guilty of this offence 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.

What is the definition of 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)

The offence of aggravated assault is not classified as 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.

What to do if you are accused of manslaughter, aggravated assault or murder

Manslaughter, aggravated assault and murder are all extremely serious criminal charges, with the potential for life-changing consequences. Not only should you seek expert 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 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 are here to help and guide you through the whole process.

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