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Murder is one of the most serious offences that a person can be accused of. Anyone found guilty of this offence will face the most severe penalties, likely a lengthy prison sentence. Although both murder and manslaughter are crimes involving the unlawful killing of another person, the main difference with murder is that there must have been the intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm. With manslaughter the mental element is not required.  

What are the components of murder? 

Only a person can commit murder- a company or corporation cannot be found guilty of this offence. For a person to be found guilty of murder, they must:  

  • Be of sound mind and discretion, meaning that insanity can be a defence 

  • Unlawfully kills. This means that if there is a justification for their action, such as self-defence, then this will be a defence 

  • A human being who is born alive and breathing independently. This removes foetuses and anyone on life support from the remit of this offence 

  • Not during a war 

  • With intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH), which is where a really serious injury occurs 

A person will not be found guilty of murder where they were simply reckless or careless as to the results of their actions. There must at least be an intention by that specific person that they would cause at least GBH- it is insufficient that an ordinary person would have foreseen that death or significant harm would arise. 


For a person to be found guilty of murder, it is necessary for it to be proved that their act or omission resulted in the death. It is not necessary to show that their action or omission was the sole or even main cause of death, so long as it was a contributing factor that was more than minimal, for example, hastening the death of a victim has been held to be sufficient.  

It is a lot harder to prove that an omission was a substantial cause of death, since the prosecution must show beyond reasonable doubt that the deceased would not have died had it not been for this omission.  

Break in the chain of causation 

A person is not guilty of murder where there is an intervening act that breaks the chain of causation that is regarded as the sole factor that caused the death:  

  • Third party interventions that were free, deliberate, informed and voluntary will break the chain of causation. This intervention must not have been reasonably foreseeable by a third party 

  • Acts of God or nature that is completely unrelated and is could not have been foreseen 

  • If the victim acted in a way that could not have been anticipated 

  • If the death resulted from normal medical treatment to deal with a criminal injury, then it is deemed to have been caused by the injury as opposed to the treatment to repair the harm suffered 

The egg-shell skull rule 

The egg-shell skull rule is linked to the issue of causation and holds that a defendant is to take their victim as they find them. This includes any non-covert and undisclosed weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the victim. As such, liability remains even if the victim was more sensitive, and more susceptible to dying, than the ordinary, healthy individual without those weaknesses or vulnerabilities.  


There are two types of defence to murder, these are known as: 

  • Complete defences 

  • Partial defences 

Complete defences 

Complete defences completely absolve a person from being found guilty of murder. For murder, it the ones that apply are: 

  • Self-defence- this would mean that the requirement of unlawful killing has not been met 

  • Automatism- this occurs where an act done by the body is not controlled by the mind (resulting in the required intention for murder being removed) 

  • Insanity- a person must be of sound mind to be found guilty of murder 

It should be noted that duress cannot be used as a defence to murder.  

Partial defences 

Partial defences arise where the requirements of murder are met but the use of these defences can reduce their offence from one of murder to that of voluntary manslaughter. 

Diminished responsibility 

To successfully argue this, a person must show the following are met: 

  • They were suffering from an abnormality of mental function- this is so different from ordinary human beings that a reasonable person would see it as abnormal 

  • If this mental function was a result of a medical condition 

  • Whether it substantially impaired their ability to understand their conduct, form a rational judgment or exercise self-control 

  • If is explains their conduct 

The abnormality must have caused or significantly contributed to the killing.  


Loss of control 

This replaced the common law defence of provocation. For this partial defence to be met, the following requirements need to be proved: 

  • There was a loss of control 

  • With a qualifying trigger 

  • And a person of the same age and sex with normal tolerance and self-restraint may have reacted in the same or similar way. 

Suicide pact 

Where the person has acted as part of a suicide pact and kills or is involved in another party to the pact being killed by a third party, then the crime is that of manslaughter and not murder. 


Since murder is such a serious crime, where a person is found guilty of this offence, they must be given a life sentence of imprisonment. The judge then sets the minimum time the person must spend in prison before being considered for release. For an adult, the starting point is 15 to 30 years and for a person under the age of 18 it is 12 years. 

Where the facts of the case are very extreme, it is possible for the person to receive a whole life order (WLO). It is rare for the courts to impose this kind of sentence since it is so draconian. There are very few WLO passed down by the courts, though Wayne Couzens received one in September 2021 for the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard. 

The courts will follow guidelines issued by the sentencing council to determine whether the sentence should be increased (due to aggravating factors) or decreased (due to mitigating factors).  

The information on this website is intended as a guide and does not constitute legal advice. Vardags do not accept liability for any errors in the information on this website, nor any losses stemming from reliance upon the statements made herein. All articles and pages aim to reflect the legal position at time they were published, and may have been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments in the law. Should you require specialist advice, tailored to your situation, please see how Vardags can help you.

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