What Is The Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter?

What is the difference between murder and manslaughter?

At law, there are distinct differences between manslaughter and murder charges. These difference range from what the crown needs to prove against you to the type of maximum penalty one may receive if found guilty. The charges are covered by the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) and include certain defences available to a person if charged. For example, self-defence is covered under section 418 Crimes Act 1900.

Murder vs Manslaughter

Murder charges are covered under section 18(1)(a) Crimes Act 1900. Murder is made out when a voluntary act or omission causes the death of the deceased, and the act is committed with:

  • an intent to inflict grievous bodily harm, or
  • an intent to kill, or
  • reckless indifference to human life, or
  • Committed by the accused or some accomplice with him or her in an attempt to commit, or during or immediately after the commission of, an offence punishable by at least 25 years imprisonment (constructive murder).

Each and every above element of the offence will need to be proved by the police beyond a reasonable doubt before a person can be found guilty of the offence. If one of these elements is not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, then the verdict should be not guilty.

Manslaughter covers an act by the accused, which is usually unintentional or accidental and leads to the death of the deceased. Instances, where the death of a person may lead to a charge of manslaughter include:

  • Excessive self-defence, as per s 421 of the Crimes Act 1900;
  • Extreme Provocation;
  • Substantial impairment by abnormality of the mind;
  • Unlawful and dangerous act; or
  • Criminal negligence.

Each and every above element of the offence will need to be proved by the police beyond a reasonable doubt before a person can be found guilty of the offence. If one of these elements is not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, then the verdict should be not guilty.

Difference in Maximum penalty

There is also difference in maximum penalties for manslaughter and murder charges. The maximum penalty for murder is imprisonment for life. It is important to note that this is an offence that carries a term of a standard non-parole period of 25 years. That is, even if you do not get the maximum penalty, you must spend a minimum of 25 years in prison.

For manslaughter, the maximum penalty is 25 years imprisonment. Where the manslaughter occurs due to a traffic offence, you may also face an automatic licence disqualification period of 3 years for a first offence or 5 years for a second offence.

Involuntary manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter

In NSW, there are two categories of involuntary manslaughter at common law:

(i) manslaughter by unlawful and dangerous act, and

(ii) manslaughter by criminal negligence.

In Wilson v The Queen (1992) 174 CLR 313, it was held that manslaughter by unlawful and dangerous act occurs when an accused causes the death of a person by a voluntary act that was unlawful and dangerous. A dangerous act is one that a reasonable person in the position of the accused would have appreciated was, an act that exposed another person to a risk of serious injury.

Moreover, in R v Cornelissen [2004] NSWCCA 449, it is essential that the jury is directed that the relevant test is the reasonable person in the accused’s position. This is a crucial issue that the crown must prove against you. It requires attributing to the reasonable person the accused’s awareness and knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the alleged act, as seen in R v Thomas [2015] NSWSC 537.

Vehicular manslaughter is when a person drives a motor vehicle in a dangerous and criminally negligent way and causes the death of another person. Accordingly, criminal negligence means more than a mere failure to take reasonable care. It means a high degree of carelessness or recklessness, showing a disregard for the life and safety of others.

Manslaughter charges usually are laid against individuals that have committed the worst form of driving, resulting in a person’s death. Vehicular manslaughter is different to dangerous driving occasioning death is an offence under section 52A of the NSW Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) which carries a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment. To establish the offence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

  • You were the driver of a motor vehicle,
  • You were involved in an impact causing the death of another person, and
  • You were under the influence of alcohol or a drug, or you were driving at a dangerous speed, or you were driving in a dangerous manner.

What are the defences available to me?

There are various defences available to a person with manslaughter or murder charges. They are;

  • Self-defence.
  • The death was not substantially caused by your actions or omission.
  • The death was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of what you did or said.
  • The death was not a natural consequence of your conduct.
  • The death was caused by something else that intervened as being the sole cause.
  • You didn’t foresee the probability of death occurring to the victim from your conduct.
  • You had no intention of killing or causing any serious or permanent disfiguring of a person.
  • Mental illness defence: Where you were suffering a mental illness causing you to have no control of your actions, or be unaware of the nature and quality of your actions, or be unaware of the wrongness of your actions.
  • Intoxication: Where you involuntarily consume drugs or alcohol, which causes an absence of intention to kill or cause serious or permanently disfiguring.
  • Automatism: Where an external factor such as medication causes you to act involuntarily in the way you did. i.e. Epileptic fit, sleepwalking, or dissociative state of losing consciousness but acting involuntarily, spasm, reflex etc.
  • Provocation (if established, it can reduce murder to manslaughter).
  • Duress or Necessity: Where you acted in this way to avoid serious harm or as a result of threat or coercion.

If you or a loved one have been charged with manslaughter or murder charges, you should obtain legal advice from the best criminal lawyer.