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As anyone can understand, it is very difficult to know where to turn when you are – through fault of your own or someone else’s – thrust into a distressing situation like facing a murder charge. The confusion, fear, and uncertainty can be overwhelming, even for the toughest of individuals. If you or someone you care about is facing a murder charge or trial, this article will help. Here, we clarify several key points around the offence of murder under English law, including the common law definition of the offence, the typical sentence, the true meaning of a life sentence, potential defences, and where to find additional help.
Under English law, murder is defined as the unlawful killing of another human being under the King’s Peace with malice aforethought. The phrase ‘malice aforethought’ doesn’t necessarily mean the killing was planned, but that the person intended to kill or cause grievous bodily harm. The offence is known as a ‘common law offence’, which means the definition has been built up over the years by courts, not by Parliament in a statute.
This offence consists of two parts:
Because the intention to cause someone serious harm is sufficient for a murder charge, arguing to the police or to the prosecution that you ‘didn’t mean to kill the person’ will not be grounds for the charge being dropped.
Murder is a specific type of offence and it does differ from manslaughter, which is another type of unlawful killing, despite sharing some similarities. Manslaughter may be voluntary (occurring in the heat of the moment or a fit of rage) or involuntary (resulting from reckless or negligent behaviour). The key difference between murder and manslaughter is the presence or absence of an intention, on the part of the defendant, to cause death or serious harm. Manslaughter may also apply where a valid defence to murder exists, meaning that the defendant will receive a lesser sentence but still go to prison.
Here are some examples to illustrate the difference between murder and manslaughter:
Imagine two individuals, one of whom harbours a clear intention to end the other’s life. This individual equips themselves with a weapon, seeks out their adversary, and deliberately inflicts fatal harm – this scenario clearly exemplifies ‘malice aforethought’, the hallmark of murder.
Contrast this with a scenario where someone, in a moment of heightened emotion and with no premeditation, inflicts fatal harm in response to a perceived threat – such as someone discovering their partner being assaulted and, in an effort to protect their partner, retaliating with fatal force. Here, the intent to cause harm was not premeditated, and the act was done in the heat of the moment, reducing the charge to voluntary manslaughter.
For involuntary manslaughter, consider a person driving recklessly and, as a consequence, hitting and killing a pedestrian. While there was no intention to harm, the death was the result of a reckless or criminally negligent act.
These examples demonstrate how the intention of the defendant determines whether a charge is classified as murder or manslaughter. This determination can be incredibly complex, which is why expert legal representation is vital in such circumstances.
Murder is one of the most serious crimes under English law, and it carries a mandatory life sentence. This does not necessarily mean that the offender will spend the rest of their life in prison without any possibility of release (though it can do in the most serious cases of murder), but it does mean they will be subject to certain restrictions for life.
In setting a murder sentence, the judge will include a minimum term, also known as the ‘tariff’. The tariff is the minimum period of time that must be spent in prison before the offender is eligible for parole. The judge determines this based on factors such as the severity of the crime, previous convictions, and any mitigating or aggravating factors.
Factors that could lead to a lengthier sentence include:
Murder is a very special offence in that there are no complete defences available to it, only partial ones. Partial defences, which in the case of murder include diminished responsibility, loss of control, and killing in pursuance of a suicide pact, encompass all the elements of murder yet, if successfully argued, ‘lessen’ or ‘mitigate’ the offence. If mitigated, the charge of manslaughter will be laid, rather than murder, and the sentence will be reduced accordingly:
There is also a very special defence relating to the death of babies:
Infanticide: This defence applies specifically in cases where a mother kills her child who is under the age of 12 months. The mother must have been suffering from a mental disturbance (caused by not having fully recovered from childbirth or the effect of lactation) at the time of the act.
As mentioned, it is imperative to remember that these defences do not lead to a full acquittal (i.e. to the case being dropped entirely), but rather a reduction in the charge from murder to manslaughter. Each of these defences has specific legal requirements and are subject to interpretation by the courts and the only way to reliably understand whether one might apply to you is to engage an expert criminal defence solicitor.
While it is technically possible to represent yourself in court, it is highly recommended to have legal representation, such as a solicitor or barrister, if you are facing a murder charge. This is due to the serious nature and potential consequences of the crime, which can include life imprisonment.
The law around murder and its defences is also very complex, and having an experienced professional to help you navigate through the legal processes is critical. A solicitor can provide advice, prepare your case, and ensure that your rights are protected throughout proceedings. They can also assist in formulating a robust defence strategy, gather evidence, examine witnesses, and communicate effectively on your behalf in court.
So, while it is certainly not a legal requirement to have a solicitor, many view it as being absolutely essential for a fair trial and the best chances for effective defence.
Remember, everyone is entitled to legal representation and a fair trial – this is not just a legal right, but a fundamental human one. This applies whether you are guilty or innocent, and it applies to murder cases just as it does any other cases. If you or a loved one are facing a murder charge, there are several resources available to you. But the first step should always be finding a competent solicitor who is experienced in murder charges to represent you. The team at Stuart Miller Solicitors has decades of experience in this area and will guide you through the process and ensure your rights are protected. If you need assistance or have any questions, please get in touch.
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