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A Guide to Involuntary Manslaughter

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The charge of manslaughter is one of the most serious criminal offences in the law of England and Wales. If you have been charged with this offence, you probably feel doubtful and afraid, and you may be wondering what lies in store for you at any upcoming criminal trial. You may also be wondering exactly what the term ‘involuntary manslaughter’ means, and how it is possible to charge someone for an act that they did not intend to do. This article unpacks the offence of involuntary manslaughter. We outline the legal test for this offence and give some examples. We look at the sentencing guidelines for this offence and we also consider the defences that you may be able to rely upon. We hope that you walk away with a clearer understanding of this offence and the options that are available to you. Remember, though, that there is no substitute to seeking advice from a qualified criminal defence solicitor. Find out how to get more help at the end of the article.

What are involuntary manslaughter offences?

Manslaughter offences are crimes that result in the unlawful loss of life. However, unlike in cases of murder, to achieve a conviction for manslaughter it is not necessary to prove that the defendant intended to kill the victim. In manslaughter cases, whilst it is necessary to prove some culpability or blameworthiness on the behalf of the defendant, the prosecution does not need to prove that there was an intention to kill.

Involuntary manslaughter is a broad term that encompasses several different types of manslaughter offences.

Manslaughter by unlawful and dangerous act

This is the most widely prosecuted form of involuntary manslaughter. This form of manslaughter is also sometimes known as ‘constructive manslaughter.’ To succeed on this charge the court must show that the defendant committed an act that was:

  1. Unlawful: The act must be a breach of criminal law, not just a civil infringement. The offence must be committed by a voluntary act, not an omission to act.
  2. Dangerous: The courts have interpreted this to mean an act that would be judged by all sober and reasonable persons to pose some risk of harm. The risk of harm does not need to appear to be serious harm. It simply needs to be clear that there is a risk that some harm will arise as a result of the unlawful action. When making this assessment, the court assumes that the reasonable person had the same knowledge as the defendant at the time that they voluntarily committed the unlawful action.
  3. Intention to commit an unlawful act: In addition, the court must show that whilst the defendant did not intend to kill the victim, the defendant intended to commit an unlawful act that ultimately resulted in the victim’s death. The court must show that the defendant had the intention to commit the act that caused the death.

Gross negligence manslaughter

This type of manslaughter can only occur where there is an established duty of care between the defendant and the victim. The defendant must commit a gross breach of that duty of care, resulting in the victim’s death. Furthermore, the victim’s death must be a reasonably foreseeable outcome of the defendant’s action.

Examples of gross negligence manslaughter include the death of a prisoner in a police cell due to the gross negligence of the custody officer, the death of a patient on an operating table due to the gross negligence of the surgeon. It also includes death by dangerous driving, as the law finds that all road users owe a duty of care to one another and to pedestrians.

What are some examples of involuntary manslaughter?

Cases heard in the courts of England and Wales provide some helpful examples of involuntary manslaughter. For example, one case concerned two boys who pushed a paving stone off a railway bridge into the path of an oncoming train. Although the boys did not intend to hurt anyone, the courts looked at whether the action was nonetheless dangerous. They were convicted of unlawful and dangerous manslaughter.

Another case concerned a robbery attempt of a petrol station by two men armed with a pick axe handle and an imitation gun. The petrol attendant was man aged 60 years old who suffered from a heart condition. He set off the alarm and then the robbers fled the scene. The attendant subsequently died of a heart attack. The Court of Appeal acquitted the robbers of manslaughter on the basis that the man’s heart condition would not have been obvious to the reasonable and sober man.

However, a similar case involving an older and frailer victim did result in a conviction for manslaughter. In that case, robbers broke into the home of an 87 year old man and proceeded to verbally abuse him although they did not physically harm him. He later died of a heart attack. The court found that the reasonable person would perceive that verbally abusing an elderly and frail person would pose a risk of harming them, and the defendant was convicted.

What are the involuntary manslaughter sentencing guidelines?

For adults aged 18 and over, the maximum sentence for manslaughter is life imprisonment. However, the actual sentence imposed varies widely depending on the facts of the case.

The government’s 2018 sentencing guidelines set out the sentence that you are likely to face if you are convicted of manslaughter.

The maximum sentence for unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter is a life sentence with a minimum custodial term of 24 years. The sentencing guidelines state that the sentence imposed will depend on the culpability of the defendant (the extent to which they should be blamed for their actions) and other aggravating factors. Factors that increase culpability include if the death took place in the context of serious criminality, or if the defendant intended to seriously harm their victim.

The maximum sentence for gross negligence manslaughter is a life sentence with a minimum sentence of 18 years. A defendant will be held more culpable if the death took place in the context of ongoing criminal behaviour. For example, if a doctor purposefully prescribed incorrect medication over a period of months or years, rather than a one-off event.

Are there any defences available to involuntary manslaughter?

Specific defences

If you have been charged with unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter, you may dispute that the unlawful behaviour presented an objective risk of harm. If you are able to argue this successfully, this could lead to you being acquitted of manslaughter and convicted of a lesser offence.

Often charges of gross negligence manslaughter are defended on the basis that whilst there may have been a breach in the duty of care sufficient to attract civil liability i.e. a claim for damages, the negligence does not meet the high threshold ‘gross negligence’. In order for the defendant to be found grossly negligent, the prosecution must show that the treatment of the victim was exceptionally bad. If the defence can cast doubt suggesting that the defendant was not grossly negligent, this may lead to the defendant escaping criminal liability.

General defences

Intoxication: You may be able to rely on this defence if you were involuntarily drugged or if you were unexpectedly intoxicated by prescription medication at the time of events. The courts are reluctant to accept voluntary intoxication with drugs or alcohol as a defence.

Insanity: If you suffered from a mental health condition that affected your ability to reason such that you were not aware that you were committing an unlawful act you may be able to rely upon this defence. You will need a medical expert to confirm a diagnosis that supports this defence.

Mistake: This defence could apply if you were mistaken as to key facts relating to the case at the time of committing the offence. You cannot rely on an assertion that you did not believe your actions to be unlawful as a defence.

Automatism: If you were not aware of your actions at the time of committing the offence e.g. if you were taking prescription medication that caused you to sleepwalk, you may be able to rely upon this defence.

Duress: You may be able to rely on this defence if you were threatened or pressurised into committing the offence. The court will consider whether a reasonable person in your situation would have responded in the same way that you did.

Self-defence: If you committed the unlawful act leading to the person’s death to defend yourself or another person, you may be able to plead self-defence. The court will consider whether the force that you used was reasonable in the circumstances.

Where to get further help

If you have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible. You could be facing a hefty jail sentence and the right advice and representation will help you secure the best possible outcome. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, our team of specialist criminal defence lawyers are here to help. Contact us for a no obligation consultation today.

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