Topic 3. Voluntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter. Introduction.
Voluntary manslaughter was introduced by Parliament via the Homicide Act 1957. It was designed to cover the situation where the defendant has both the actus reus and mens rea of murder but the surrounding circumstances of the offence mean that the defendant’s liability is reduced from murder to manslaughter. These relevant circumstances amount to partial defences specific to a murder charge and are defined by the Homicide Act as diminished responsibility, provocation and suicide pacts.
Diminished responsibility is defined in s.2 of the Homicide Act 1957:
‘Where a person kills or is party to a killing of another, he shall not be convicted of murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in doing or being a party to the killing.’
The defendant must be suffering from an abnormality of mind, caused by a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind or any inherent cause or be induced by disease or injury. This covers conditions such as mental deficiency, depression, battered-wife syndrome, pre-menstrual tension, epilepsy, shock, and depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
The abnormality of mind must substantially impair the defendant’s mental responsibility for the killing and it is up to the jury to decide whether this was the case. The abnormality does not have to be the only cause of the defendant’s actions.
Burden and standard of proof
Diminished responsibility is a partial defence, which applies only to murder. If pleaded successfully, it will reduce the defendant’s liability from murder to that of manslaughter and thus allow him or her to avoid the mandatory life sentence.
The Law Commission recently reviewed the area of voluntary manslaughter in its paper ‘Partial Defences to Murder’ (Consultation Paper No 173).
Critics argue that it is unclear precisely what the term ‘diminished responsibility’ means. There is little to assist in determining what constitutes an ‘abnormality of mind’ – it is simply and tautologically defined as a state of mind that is ‘abnormal’. There are also difficulties in trying to determine whether the defendant’s mental responsibility has been ‘substantially impaired’.
Burden of proof rests with the defendant
Opponents of the current law say that the burden of proof should be changed so that the onus is on the prosecution.
Labels those in abusive relationships as mentally abnormal
In order to rely on the defence of diminished responsibility, those in abusive relationships who kill their abusers must claim to be mentally abnormal. Critics say that this should not be the case and far more emphasis should be placed on the abuse that they have suffered rather than their state of mind.
Courts too ready to accept the defence in some cases
The courts have been criticised for being too willing to accept the defence of diminished responsibility in some instances. In some cases involving euthanasia, the courts may take the view that the defendant does not deserve to be labelled a murderer and face the accompanying life sentence, and so accept a plea of diminished responsibility on the basis of little evidence. Despite their good intentions, this is seen by many as a misuse of the defence.
Provocation is defined in s.3 of the Homicide Act 1957:
‘Where on a charge of murder there is evidence on which the jury can find that the person charged was provoked (whether by things done or by things said or by both together) to lose his self-control, the question whether the provocation was enough to make a reasonable man do as he did shall be left to be determined by the jury; and in determining that question the jury shall take into account everything both done and said according to the effect which, in their opinion, it would have on a reasonable man.’
The first question that the jury must ask is whether, as a matter of fact, the defendant was provoked to lose his or her self-control.
It was held in Duffy (1949) that the loss of self-control must be ‘sudden and temporary’. This requirement is issued in order to avoid bringing killings carried out in revenge under the scope of the defence. Pre-planned attacks are not the same as provocation.
Burden and standard of proof
Once there is some evidence of provocation, the judge must leave the matter to the jury. It is up to the jury to decide whether the defendant was provoked by things said or done or both together, whether the defendant lost his or her self-control as a result, and finally, whether a reasonable person of the same age and sex as the defendant but with ordinary powers of self-control would have acted as the defendant did.
Like diminished responsibility, provocation is a partial defence that applies only to murder. If the jury finds that the defendant was provoked, the defendant’s liability will be for manslaughter rather than murder, and he or she will thus avoid the mandatory life sentence.
The requirement that the loss of self-control must be sudden and temporary has caused some to complain that the provocation defence operates in a way that discriminates against women. They claim that provocation is based on male reactions to violence. In order to combat this apparent sexism, the courts have accepted the idea of ‘cumulative provocation’, under which previous acts or words may be taken into account when considering whether the defendant was provoked.
Some critics argue that it is never justified to kill as a result of any provocation, and a sane defendant who kills another unlawfully should always be convicted of murder.
Scope is too broad
The Law Commission argues that the definition of provocation is too broad in that it includes behaviour that most people would not describe as provocative, such as a baby crying.
Scope is too narrow
In some respects, the scope of provocation is viewed as too narrow. The requirement that the loss of control be ‘sudden and temporary’ has worked against defendants – particularly those in abusive relationships.
Holds the victim responsible for his or her own death
Reliance on the defence of provocation necessitates examination of the victim’s actions. Where the victim is the one who has provoked the defendant, focus is placed on the victim’s conduct. Many view this as unfair, since deceased victims are unable to respond to any allegations made against them.
The defence of provocation is criticised for its seemingly discriminatory effect. Since it reflects the traditional male response to violence, women have found it difficult to meet the necessary criteria for a successful plea.
Redefine the defence
The Law Commission detailed proposals for a reformed defence in ‘Partial Defences to Murder’, recommending that it should be available to those defendants who acted in response to:
(a) gross provocation (meaning words or conduct or a combination of words and conduct that caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriouslywronged), or
(b) fear of serious violence towards the defendant or another, or
(c) a combination of (a) and (b)
Furthermore, it is important that a person of the defendant’s age and of ordinary temperament in the circumstances of the defendant might have reacted in the same or a similar way.
The Law Commission stated that provocation should not apply where it was incited by the defendant for the purpose of providing an excuse to use violence, or the defendant acted in premeditated desire for revenge.
Merge diminished responsibility and provocation into one defence
The Law Commission considered doing this, but it did not believe that such a move would solve the current problems.
It has been suggested that the defence of provocation should be abolished, but the Law Commission concluded that this should not be done as long as the mandatory life sentence remains for murder. Currently, there is no indication by the government that the mandatory nature of the sentence in murder cases is to be changed, so it appears that provocation will remain for the foreseeable future.
Section 4(1) of the Homicide Act 1957 provides a defence to a murder charge for the survivor of a suicide pact:
‘It shall be manslaughter and shall not be murder for a person acting in pursuance of a suicide pact between himself and another to kill the other or be a party to the other killing himself or being killed by a third party.’
A suicide pact may occur if two or more parties make an agreement to die. However, if all parties embark upon the pact but one person survives, he or she may be subsequently charged with murder.
For example, a husband and wife may agree to commit suicide together. The husband may shoot his wife with the intention of killing her and then shoot himself. If his wife dies but he survives, he may then be charged with his wife’s murder. In this case, he would be able to use this defence to reduce his liability to that of manslaughter.
Like diminished responsibility and provocation, this partial defence only applies to a charge of murder. It must be shown by the defendant that there was a suicide pact in existence and that all parties had a settled intention of dying throughout.
Burden and standard of proof
The defendant must prove the existence of the suicide pact on the balance of probabilities.
If successful, the defendant will be convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder and will avoid the mandatory life sentence.