Unlike murder, there is no mandatory sentence for the criminal offence of manslaughter. Sentencing is at the judge’s discretion and – where provocation was an issue in the offence – within certain guidelines prescribed by the sentencing guidelines council.
What is manslaughter?
Manslaughter in the UK is defined as murder without premeditation. There are two types of manslaughter:
- Voluntary manslaughter – whereby the defendant is found to have had the intent to kill or cause serious bodily harm to the victim. This conviction can only stand if the defendant pleads one of two partial defences against an offence of murder – loss of self control or reduced mental capacity. Without either of these defences, the offence will be classified as murder
- Involuntary manslaughter – the defendant is found to be responsible for the offence of murder, but there is no clear motive for the act
Vehicular manslaughter is the crime of causing the death of another individual due to the illegal driving of a vehicle. Causes of vehicular manslaughter include:
- Gross negligence
- Drunk driving
- Drug driving
- Reckless driving
What are the categories of involuntary manslaughter?
The offence of involuntary manslaughter can be divided into four categories:
- Unlawful act manslaughter – an intentional unlawful act which must be objectively dangerous and lead to death
- Gross negligence manslaughter – a duty of care towards the victim is breached as a result of gross negligence by the defendant, leading to the death of the victim
- Subjectively reckless manslaughter – a subjectively reckless act which leads to death
- Corporate manslaughter – a gross breach of the duty of care by a company or organisation that leads to a death
What is the maximum sentence for manslaughter?
Depending on the severity of the offence – and if it is classified as a voluntary or involuntary act – the maximum sentence for manslaughter in the UK is life imprisonment. However, the judge may impose a lesser sentence, including:
- A prison sentence – typically ranging between 2-10 years
- A suspended term of imprisonment (the sentence can be suspended for up to two years and the offender is given the chance to comply with up to 12 requirements set by the court)
- Community service
In the case of corporate manslaughter – where an organisation is convicted of causing the death – the punishment will be a fine.
How is a manslaughter sentence decided?
The defendant is sentenced after he or she has either pleaded guilty to the offence or been found guilty by the jury.
The following will be taken into consideration before passing a sentence for manslaughter:
- The level of culpability – was the offence involuntary or voluntary manslaughter? Are there any mitigating or aggravating circumstances?
- Whether the defendant poses a threat to the public
- How best to rehabilitate the defendant and deter them from committing another crime
- A guilty plea – if the defendant pleads guilty the judge will reduce the sentence by up to one third depending on how early the plea was made
- Circumstances and history of the defendant – does the defendant have any previous criminal convictions? How old are they?
How likely is a life sentence for manslaughter?
Prison sentences for manslaughter are complex. If a life sentence is imposed, the judge will set a ‘tariff’ – a minimum amount of time that a person must serve in prison before they can be released on parole. If the offender is no longer considered a threat to the public, he or she will be released subject to certain conditions.
The imposition of a life sentence is discretionary and relatively unusual as the level of culpability is much lower than that found in a murder conviction. If the judge decides that they not need to impose such a sentence, they have a full range of alternative sentencing options available to them, which can include suspended sentences or community based sentences. Where a fixed term prison sentence is imposed, offenders serve half their sentence in prison and half in the community but remain subject to recall to prison if they breach the terms of their release on licence.
In certain cases where the offender may be suffering from a mental illness or disability of the mind at the time of the offence, it is possible that a manslaughter conviction will arise from a defendant pleading guilty to the offence on the grounds that they are suffering from ‘diminished responsibility’.
In this instance, the court may decide that a hospital order is the appropriate sentence, whereby the offender is detained in a secure mental health facility for as long as is deemed necessary for their rehabilitation. The issue of diminished responsibility is a complex one and raises issues of medical evidence and what disposal is appropriate considering all the circumstances of the case.
Sentencing is always contentious in regards to manslaughter. The harm caused by any offence that results in a death is immeasurable and often the public can be quick to anger, especially when courts hand out sentences that are seen as too lenient.
How long is a life sentence in the UK?
The average life sentence in the UK is 15 years before the prisoner may be eligible for parole. Those convicted of exceptionally serious crimes may be sentenced to a term that exceeds 15 years.
A life sentence stands for the rest of the convicted individual’s life – if they are released from prison after completing their sentence and they commit another crime, they can be sent back to prison.
A whole life term differs from a standard life sentence, in that the defendant will never be considered for release from prison in their lifetime.
How does the manslaughter sentencing procedure work?
During a sentencing hearing for manslaughter, the prosecution address the court outlining the facts of the case, then the defence proceed to do the same. The defence put forward their mitigation, which seeks to explain the circumstances leading to the commission of the offence in the most favourable light; identifying key elements to what may have contributed to the offence and the pertinent background.
It is imperative to work with your solicitor throughout the case so you have the best chance of achieving a more favourable outcome, based on the evidence provided. Our team of specialist solicitors have the necessary experience to help and guide you through the whole process.