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A Guide to Threats to Kill in UK Law

London's best criminal lawyers | Majad Habib

Threats to kill are very serious actions and – as is to be expected – the criminal justice system in the UK comes down hard on offenders. If you or someone you care about has been accused of or charged with a threat to kill offence, you are understandably confused about the situation and worried about what might happen next. Will there be a trial? What happens if found guilty? Are there any defences available? In this article, we outline some of the most common questions and concerns around threats to kill offences so you can plan your next steps and relieve some of the stress you are facing.

What is legally considered a threat in the UK?

Threats are primarily governed by Section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, though threatening behaviour in general may also fall under the Public Order Act 1986.

The Section 16 offence is:

‘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 other words, if a person makes a threat to kill another person or a third person without a good reason and with the intention of causing fear that the threat will be carried out, they will be guilty of a crime. If they are convicted in court, they could be sent to prison for up to 10 years.

What is threatening behaviour in UK law?

In the UK, a threat is considered to be a criminal offence if it is intended to cause the victim to fear that violence will be used against them. This could include verbal threats, written threats, or other forms of communication that are intended to cause fear. Note that the threat does not have to be carried out in order for it to be considered a criminal offence. It is also a criminal offence to make a threat of violence against a person or property with the intent of causing fear or distress.

What is a threat to kill?

A threat to kill is a criminal offence that involves threatening to take another person’s life or causing them to fear for their own safety. As with other forms of threat, this can include threats made face-to-face, through written communication, such as emails or text messages, and even over the phone. It does not matter if the offender does not intend to carry out their threat; what matters is the intention to cause fear and distress.

Examples of spoken words that convey a threat to kill include:

  • “I’ll kill you and your whole family if you tell anyone about this.”
  • “If you don’t break up with your girlfriend, I’ll make sure you never see her again.”
  • “You’re going to regret crossing me. I’ll make sure you never see the light of day again.”

What is the sentence for threats to kill?

If found guilty under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, an offender could face up to 10 years’ custody. If found guilty under the Public Order Act 1986, the punishment may be a fine, a prison sentence of up to six months, or both.

As with any offence, the court will look at culpability and harm as two factors that influence the ultimate sentence you are given.

  • Culpability refers to the degree of responsibility that a person has for the crime that they have committed. Factors that may affect a person’s culpability include their level of intent, their state of mind at the time of the offence, and any actions they took to try to avoid committing the crime.
  • Harm, on the other hand, refers to the negative consequences that a person’s actions have caused, or are likely to cause, to others. This can include physical harm, emotional harm, financial loss, or damage to property. The extent of the harm caused by a person’s actions is also taken into account when determining their sentence.

In general, offences that are considered more serious, either because of the high degree of culpability or the significant harm caused, will result in harsher sentences.

What is the sentence for sending death threats?

The sentence for sending death threats is the same as the sentence for threats to kill more broadly. This is because the act of sending a death threat is an activity that could constitute the offence of making threats to kill. It doesn’t matter exactly how the threat was made (i.e. whether it was made directly, sent via the post, etc.).

Is threatening violence a crime in the UK?

Yes, threatening violence is a crime in the UK. This includes making verbal or written threats, as well as communicating with another person in a way that makes them fear for their safety or that of others.

What is a conditional threat?

A conditional threat is an expression of intent to cause harm if certain conditions are not met. For example, you might make a threat to kill someone if they do not comply with a certain demand. Conditional threats are still considered criminal offences in the UK and can carry serious consequences.

Are death threats punishable by law?

Death threats may be punishable by law in certain situations. The basic requirement for punishment to be warranted is that the victim of the threat fears that violence will be used against them.

Can you go to jail for wishing death on someone?

Simply wishing death on someone in your own head is not an offence. Your actions must meet the legal thresholds described above in order to trigger criminal responsibility. If you directly tell someone that you ‘wish death upon them’ then a criminal prosecution may follow if the recipient of the threat fears that violence will be used against them.

What defences are available for threats to kill?

The most common defence available is that the threat was made in jest or was not intended to be taken seriously. In some cases, the accused may also be able to prove that they had no intention of carrying out their threat or creating fear in the victim. If these specific defences do not apply, a general defence may apply instead.

General defences are not specific to any one type of offence, but can be applied to a wide range of crimes. Some examples of general defences include self-defence, defence of others, defence of property, necessity, and duress.

For instance, if a person is charged with the offence of threats to kill, they may be able to raise the defence of self-defence. This defence is based on the idea that the defendant believed that they were in imminent danger of being killed or seriously harmed, and that their actions were necessary to protect themselves from that danger. If the defendant can show that they had a reasonable belief that they were in danger and that their actions were justified in the circumstances, then they may be able to rely on the defence of self-defence to avoid criminal liability for the offence of threats to kill.

Another example of a general defence that may be applicable in a case involving threats to kill is the defence of necessity. This defence is based on the idea that the defendant’s actions were necessary to prevent a greater harm from occurring. For example, if a person is threatened with death unless they agree to carry out a criminal act, they may be able to argue that their actions were necessary to prevent the greater harm of being killed. If the defendant can show that their actions were necessary to prevent a greater harm and that they had no other reasonable alternative, they may be able to rely on the defence of necessity to avoid criminal liability for the offence of threats to kill.

These are just two examples of how general defences may be applied in a case involving threats to kill. There are many other possible defences that a defendant may be able to raise, depending on the specific facts and circumstances of the case. It is important for anyone facing criminal charges to consult with a qualified criminal defence solicitor who can advise them on the defences that may be available in their case.

Where to get more help with threats to kill offences?

If you or someone you know is facing charges for a threat to kill offence, it is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible. A qualified criminal defence solicitor can advise on the best course of action and provide representation at court if necessary. With the right legal support, you may be able to reduce your sentence or have the charges dismissed altogether. Contact Stuart Miller Solicitors today for a free, no obligation, and non-judgemental consultation.


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