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What does not constitute murder? Voluntary manslaughter

In order to better understand what murder is, it is useful to understand what law is not.

Manslaughter is a form of homicide. However, even though it involves death it is viewed as being less serious than murder.

“Generally any unlawful homicide which is not classified as murder is categorised as some form of manslaughter.” e.g accidental death. (Brookman, 2005: 8)

There are two main types of manslaughter: Voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary manslaughter: Like the crime of murder, voluntary manslaughter has elements of mens rea (intention to commit ) and actus reus (the act committed). This means that the accused did indeed intend to cause death or injury. However, the law sees these circumstances as being less grave and not deserving of murder but manslaughter.

These circumstances are: (i) Loss of control [Sections 54 & 55 of the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009] (ii) Diminished responsibility (suffering from ‘abnormality of mind’) [Section 52 of the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009] (iii) Suicide Pact (Section 4 of the Homicide Act, 1957) (killer is a survivor of the pact)

The circumstances listed below (loss of control, diminished responsibility, suicide pact) are defences only to murder. If successful, the charges will be reduced to manslaughter.

Loss of Control In previous times, provocation to kill was used as one of the circumstances under which a voluntary manslaughter defense was made. This has now been abolished by Section 56 of the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009 and replaced with Sections 54 and 55 which provide that loss of control is a partial defence to murder.

According to Sec 54 (i): Where a person (“D”) kills or is a party to the killing of another (“V”), D is not to be convicted of murder if— (a)D’s acts and omissions in doing or being a party to the killing resulted from D’s loss of self-control, (b)the loss of self-control had a qualifying trigger, and (c)a person of D’s sex and age, with a normal degree of tolerance and self-restraint and in the circumstances of D, might have reacted in the same or in a similar way to D.

(ii) Diminished Responsibility Section 52 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (the Act) replaces the definition of diminished responsibility as contained in the 1957 Homicide Act. It applies to defendants charged with murder where the acts or omissions resulting in the death of the victim took place on or after 4 October 2010. There is a noted Distinction between the provisions for England and Wales (Section 52) and Northern Ireland (Section 53).

As seen in Section 52 (persons suffering from diminished responsibility in England and Wales), “(1)A person (“D”) who kills or is a party to the killing of another is not to be convicted of murder if D was suffering from an abnormality of mental functioning which— (a) arose from a recognised medical condition, (* In Northern Ireland, “mental condition” is used instead of “medical condition”) (b) substantially impaired D’s ability to do one or more of the things mentioned in subsection (1A), and (c) provides an explanation for D’s acts and omissions in doing or being a party to the killing.

(1A)Those things are— (a)to understand the nature of D’s conduct; (b)to form a rational judgment; (c)to exercise self-control.”

(ii) Suicide Pact According to Section 4 (i) of the Homicide Act, 1957, the crime of murder is reduced to manslaughter when the survivor of a joint suicide pact took part in the killing of another person in the pact, or was a party to that other person being killed by a third person.

According to Section 4(iii), a suicide pact means, “a common agreement between two or more persons having for its object the death of all of them, whether or not each is to take his own life, but nothing done by a person who enters into a suicide pact shall be treated as done by him in pursuance of the pact unless it is done while he has the settled intention of dying in pursuance of the pact.”

E.g. A husband and wife agree that they will kill themselves. The plan is that the husband will shoot his wife, then turn the gun on himself. When he has shot her, he loses his nerve and can no longer shoot himself. In this scenario, the husband can face a murder charge unless he could successfully prove that he shot his wife as a part of a suicide pact. If the defense is successful, his charge will be reduced to manslaughter.

Note: According to section 2 (i) of the Suicide Act, 1961 a maximum penalty of 14 years is given for the offence of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide of another. Hence, a person who committed suicide as a part of a pact will receive this sentence; the suicide pact is a defence only to a charge of murder.

© University of Hull
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Introduction to Criminology

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