The defences for murder under UK law

Nick Titchener headshot

Nick Titchener

Managing Partner


Have you been accused of murder? What are the consequences of a conviction under UK law?

The criminal offence of murder is the most serious crime under UK law, with extremely serious penalties and sentences for those found guilty.

The maximum sentence for murder is life imprisonment. However, the judge may impose a lesser sentence, depending on the circumstances of the case.

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at London Criminal Defence Solicitors, Lawtons, discusses this complex area of the law and its implications.

How is murder classified under UK law?

The act of murder involves a person of sound mind unlawfully killing another with the intention to kill. The act of murder can also be proven in cases where there was no intention to kill, but there was the intent to cause grievous bodily harm (GBH).

Even though someone may die as a result of the accused’s actions the defendant may not be found guilty of murder, if they were, for example, acting in self defence, as is an occurrence in numerous self defence cases. However the accused would not be able to claim they were acting under duress in a murder charge.

What is the sentence for murder?

Murder is an indictable only offence and as such, it can only be heard in the crown court.

What are the defences for murder under UK law?

While self defence and there are three specific defences for murder under UK law:

  1. Diminished responsibility

Essentially an abnormality of the mind which would have to arise from a recognised medical condition and substantially impair the accused’s ability to understand their conduct, form a rational judgement or exercise self-control.

The medical abnormality of mind would also have to provide an explanation for the accused’s actions or omissions. It does not have to be the sole cause of the killing but it would have to be more than merely trivial, therefore it would not succeed if the accused would have killed regardless of the abnormality of mind.

Medical evidence is imperative both for determining whether there is a recognised abnormality of mind but also to establish whether there was substantial impairment. Although medical evidence will be called in a case of diminished responsibility, the jury is not bound to accept this evidence. It is for the defence to prove diminished responsibility, however this only needs to be proven on the balance of probabilities.

       2. Loss of control

Loss of control is a partial defence that has been available since 2010. Prior to this there was a defence of provocation, which has since been abolished and is no longer available.

Loss of control occurs where the deceased’s behaviour was such that any reasonable person would have lost control. However, there needs to be a qualifying trigger for the action. Qualifying triggers include loss of control from a fear of serious violence from the victim and/or loss of control to things done or said which resulted in the accused having a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged.

The loss of control does not need to be sudden, however, control must be lost and the accused cannot act in revenge. If the defence want to raise loss of control as a defence to murder then a judge has to decide if there is sufficient evidence to put the partial defence to the jury. If it is then the burden is on the prosecution to disprove it.

      3. Killing in pursuance of a suicide pact

A common agreement between two or more people for them all to die, it does not matter if the agreement – or pact – is to take their own lives, or to kill each other. However, the accused must intend to die in the pact. It does not matter if they went onto die or not as clearly this partial defence only applies if there is a survivor of a suicide pact.

If the accused merely assists in a suicide and did not intend to die themselves then they would not be able to raise this partial defence and may be liable for prosecution for an alternative offence of assisting a suicide. It would be for the accused to raise killing in pursuance of a suicide pact, however it would only have to be established on the balance of probabilities.

What is a partial defence to murder?

A partial defence reduces a crime that would be classified as murder to a charge of manslaughter. The elements required to convict a defendant or murder will all be present, but the charge itself will be reduced if any of the three available defences are successfully claimed.

What is voluntary manslaughter?

The offence of voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person of sound mind unlawfully kills another person in a non-premeditated, emotionally charged act.

Voluntary manslaughter typically occurs when the offender has been provoked into acting as a result of a situation or event. A gesture or statement will not be deemed sufficient as event leading to involuntary manslaughter and there must be a more significant situation leading to the act.

The time between the act of provocation and the actual offence must be short as a delay will lead to the killing being treated as a case of murder, not voluntary manslaughter.

What is the maximum sentence for manslaughter in the UK?

The maximum sentence for manslaughter is life imprisonment. However, the judge may impose a lesser sentence including:

  1. A prison sentence – between 2-10 years
  2. A suspended prison term – the sentence can be suspended for up to two years. The offender must comply with up to 12 requirements set by the court
  3. Community service

What is involuntary manslaughter?

If someone is killed but there was no clear intention to kill or cause GBH, the defendant may still be found guilty of the offence of involuntary manslaughter.

There are two types of involuntary manslaughter:

  1. Death resulting from someone acting grossly negligent

Involuntary manslaughter as a result of gross negligence can be broken down into four elements:

  • There must be a duty of care to the victim
  • There must be a breach of that duty
  • The breach must cause death
  • The breach was so severe that it was grossly negligent and therefore a crime.

A case of involuntary manslaughter due to criminal negligence is usually brought against business owners or people in a position of responsibility. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment any potential sentence can vary significantly.

     2. Death resulting from an unlawful or dangerous act

Involuntary manslaughter as a result of an unlawful or dangerous act can broken down into three elements:

  • There must be an unlawful act although it need not be directed towards the victim and or any other person. However there must be an act and omissions will not suffice
  • The unlawful act must be dangerous. This is taken as an objective test and therefore whether a sober and reasonable person would recognise the act was dangerous and would subject the victim to some harm
  • The unlawful dangerous act must result in death

What is attempted murder?

While the offence of attempted murder shares many of the characteristics as murder, there are two clear differences which differentiate between the two offences:

  1. The offence does not result in a death
  2. There has to be an intention to kill, as an intention to cause GBH will not suffice

If the prosecution cannot prove an intention to kill then an attempted murder charge will not succeed. In these circumstances, the prosecution may therefore favour a charge of GBH with Intent.

Attempted murder is an indictable only offence which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

If you are accused of committing murder, contact our team of expert criminal defence solicitors. At Lawtons we can provide legal advice and assistance. Get in touch with us to see how we can help you achieve the best outcome and defence for your case.

About the author

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate of Lawtons, is a dedicated criminal solicitor with considerable experience in legal cases including sexual offences, violence and assault. Nick’s measured and methodical approach means he thrives on even the most complex case.

Nick also oversees the overall management of Lawtons Solicitors, a specialist firm of criminal law defence solicitors with branches across London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex.

Related Articles