If you have been accused of manslaughter, the consequences under UK law are severe. The sentence will depend on the specific circumstances of the offence.
Nick Titchener, of London Solicitors Lawtons, explains this complicated area of the law and the implications of a conviction.
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 – falls within certain prescribed guidelines.
What is manslaughter in the UK?
Manslaughter in the UK is defined as murder without premeditation. There are two types of manslaughter. Here’s how they are defined:
- 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 and the sentence for dangerous driving can take many forms. Causes of vehicular manslaughter include:
- Gross negligence
- Drunk driving
- Drug driving
- Reckless driving
What is the definition 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 average sentence for manslaughter in the UK?
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 and 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
How is a manslaughter sentence decided in the UK?
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 do 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.
Sentencing is always contentious with 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.
What is ‘diminished responsibility’ in a manslaughter case?
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. This would happen 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. This is where 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 complex and raises issues of medical evidence and what disposal is appropriate considering the circumstances of the case.
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. They do this by 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.
Note: This guide is intended to give general information only and not intended to be used as the basis upon which advice is given nor should it be relied upon as giving advice specific to a case or individual.
Lawtons do not accept liability for anyone using this guide. Should you require specific advice in connection with a real case or situation, please contact us so we can provide specific legal advice and assistance.
About the author
Nick Titchener is a criminal solicitor who has worked on a vast number of serious legal cases including sexual offences, violence and assault. His methodical approach allows him to thrive on such complex cases.
Nick also oversees the overall management of Lawtons solicitors.
What is the difference between murder and manslaughter?
Manslaughter is defined in the UK as murder without premeditation. There are a number of reasons why death could be caused without premeditation, such as an accident – whereas murder is the the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.
What is the minimum sentence for manslaughter in the UK?
Depending upon the severity of the offence, the lowest level sentence for manslaughter is a community order. The minimum prison sentence is generally two years.
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.
What is the sentence for involuntary manslaughter in the UK?
There is no clear sentence for involuntary manslaughter, but as involuntary circumstances will generally be seen to reduce the severity of an offence, the sentence can usually be expected to fall at the lesser end of the scale.
What is the sentence for corporate manslaughter in the UK?
In the case of corporate manslaughter – where an organisation is convicted of causing an individual’s death – the punishment will be a fine.