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Threatening to kill someone is a serious offence in the UK, which could land you up in prison. Whilst some threats are ‘empty’ and do not result in actual violence against the victim, there is a documented link between threats to kill and fatal domestic violence. Moreover, even where it is not subsequently followed by the use of force, threatening behaviour can cause serious psychological harm to victims. Whether by intimate partners, drug dealing gangs, or illegal loan sharks, threats to kill can be used as a way of coercing and pressuring the victim into complying with the perpetrator’s demands, including frightening them away from seeking assistance from the police or other organisations. For these reasons and more, the courts take threats to kill seriously. If you have been accused of making threats to kill, even if they occurred in a situation where it is obvious to you that you were not genuinely contemplating violence against the victim, make sure you have a criminal defence solicitor in whom you can trust.
The offence of threatening to kill a person is set out at Section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. This very old piece of legislation states:
‘A person who without lawful excuse makes to another a threat, intending that that other would fear it would be carried out, to kill that other or a third person shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.’
In order to be convicted of threats to kill, the court does not need to find that you actually intended to carry out your threat. However, the court must find that the person receiving the threat feared that you would carry out your threat. Where the threat occurs during a heated argument or moment of aggression, this requirement may not be met.
Threats to kill are punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but most offences will not receive such a hefty sentence. The usual offence range is between a community order and 7 years’ custody. Threats to kill is an either way offence, which means that it can either be heard in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. Where it is heard in the Magistrates’ Court, the maximum custodial sentence is 6 months.
The sentence for the offence of threats to kill will be determined with reference to the culpability of the offender and harm caused to the victim. This offence can vary between a serious threat with some evidence of a possibility that it could be carried out, and a situation where the victim fears it will be carried out however there is no evidence that the perpetrator would actually kill the victim.
Deciding where on this scale the offence falls is key to assessing the culpability of the offence. Relevant factors include: if there was evidence of significant planning; a visible weapon; if threats were made in the presence of children; if there was a history of violence perpetrated by the defendant towards the victim; or if the threats were accompanied by significant violence. The sentence will be greater where there is evidence of psychological harm caused to the victim; where the victim was caused serious distress; and where the threats have had a significant practical impact on the victim, e.g. by causing them to change their daily habits such as where they work, how they get there, how their children are picked up from school, etc.
For example, say you have been in an intimate relationship with the victim for 10 years. During that time, there have been several episodes of serious violence perpetrated by you against her. During the incident in question, you strangled the victim and threatened to kill her. She has suffered from documented mental health issues as a result of your behaviour, and has been admitted to a refuge for domestic violence victims.
This would be a serious case of threats to kill which would receive a sentence towards the upper end of the range. The starting point for the sentence could be as much as 4 years.
From there, the court will consider statutory aggravating factors; this would include your previous convictions for violence offences, and your ongoing victimization of her. The court would also consider any mitigating factors present in the case. It would be relevant to consider if the victim had also been convicted of violent offences against you. Your criminal defence solicitor can help you prepare your plea in mitigation. Once all of these factors have been taken into consideration, the court will decide upon your sentence.
A less serious example of threats to kill could be if you became involved in a drunken argument at a bar with a stranger after they had accidentally stepped on your foot. In a moment of anger in response to the pain, you shouted, ‘I’ll kill you’ and swore at him. The victim was angry and upset afterwards but did not suffer any lasting psychological harm. In this situation, if the court finds that the victim believed you might follow through with the threat, you could still be convicted of a threat to kill, even if you did not actually commit any violence acts towards the victim. However, in this example, without any other aggravating factors, you are more likely to receive a community level order than a custodial sentence.
For more information on sentencing for threats to kill, see the guide produced by the Sentencing Council here.
In addition to a criminal sentence, if the incident occurred in the context of domestic abuse, the police or magistrate has the power to impose a domestic violence protection order. This is an order that will restrict your contact with the victim. The terms vary, but this can include being prevented from contacting them or going within a certain distance of their home.
In some circumstances, making a threat against a person could result in a prison sentence. There are several different offences in the law of England and Wales that relate to making threats. Here are some of these offences:
|Offence||Elements of the offence||Sentence|
|Threats to kill (Section 16 Offences Against the Person Act)||Threatening to kill someone
The person actually believes that you might carry out the threat
|Up to 10 years in prison|
|Threatening behaviour Section 4 Public Order Act 1986||Using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards another person
Distributing or displaying to another person any writing, sign or visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting
With the intention of causing that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person, or to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another, or where that person is likely to believe that such violence will be used or it is likely that such violence will be provoked.
|Up to 6 months in prison|
|Affray (Section 3 of the Public Order Act)||Using or threatening unlawful violence towards another person where a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene would fear for his personal safety||Up to 3 years in prison|
|Riot (Section 1 of the Public Order Act 1986)||Where 12 or more persons threaten or use unlawful violence||Up to 10 years in prison|
|Violent disorder (Section 2 of the Public Order Act)||Where 3 or more persons threaten or use unlawful violence||Up to 5 years in prison|
Where threatening behaviour is used in a religiously or racially aggravated context, the punishment can be more severe. If the offence is based on racial or religious hostility, Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act increases the penalty for threatening behaviour committed under Section 4 or 4A of the Public Order Act to up to 2 years.
In 2018, 2400 offenders were sentenced for this racially aggravated offence. According to the Sentencing Council, the ‘vast majority’ were sentenced in the Magistrates’ Court meaning that they would have served 6 months or less in prison.
As you can see, in the criminal law of England and Wales, the severity of making a threat against someone depends significantly on the circumstances of the case. Even where you intend to plead guilty, a good criminal defence solicitor can help persuade the court as to why a less serious charge would be more appropriate. This can result in a much more lenient sentence.
If you have been accused of making threats to kill, you may have a defence if you can show that the victim did not actually believe that you might carry out your threat. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, our criminal defence team are skilled in casting doubt upon the prosecution’s case. Where the prosecution does not have a credible case, we will write to the prosecutor asking them to drop the case before court. Contact us for a no obligation consultation today.
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