Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when an unlawful and dangerous, or grossly negligentact or omission causes someone else’s death. In these circumstances, a person kills another – but lacks the intent to kill or to cause grievous bodily harm (GBH).

‘Constructive manslaughter’ and ‘gross negligence’ manslaughter are both forms of involuntary manslaughter.

Constructive manslaughter

Constructive manslaughter has three elements:

  • An unlawful dangerous act committed by the defendant resulting in the death of another person
  • The act must have involved a risk that someone would be harmed
  • The defendant must have had the mens rea(the mental element such as intent) for the unlawful act which led to the victim’s death

Unlawful act causing the victim’s death

What is important is the issue of causation between the unlawful act and the subsequent death. Liability will likely be established if there is little or no break in the chain of causation. Many cases in this area have involved illegal drug users, and people assisting them with taking drugs.

In R v Kennedy [1999], for example,the victim asked the defendant to get him something to help him sleep. The defendant gave the victim a syringe of heroin. The victim injected himself with the heroin and was dead within the hour. The defendant was convicted of manslaughter.

In the 2003 case of R v Rogers (Stephen), the defendant held a tourniquet around the victim’s arm so that the victim could inject himself. The Court of Appeal upheld the defendant’s conviction for manslaughter stating that the defendant had been sufficiently involved in the injection to make him guilty of manslaughter when the victim later died. The appeal court questioned the Kennedy decision, but did not overrule it. The issue could arise once again for the courts to consider.

An intervening act will break the chain of causation if that act is the sole cause of the victim’s death. Such an act will relieve the defendant from liability for manslaughter.

The risk of harm

An objective test, developed through case law, is applied to determine the risk that someone would be harmed. That is: would a reasonable and sober person inevitably recognise a risk of some harm? It does not have to be serious harm – if some harm can reasonably be foreseen, the test is satisfied.

The harm foreseen must be physical. This includes shock, but not the results of shock, so psychological or emotional harm is insufficient. In R v Carey, C and F (2006) it was held that when deciding whether an act is dangerous, knowledge of the victim’s nature could be relevant. A reasonable and sober person, unaware that an apparently healthy teenage girl actually had a congenital heart defect, would not have been able to foresee that an unlawful act which amounts to an affray would result in the girl’s death from heart problems.

Requirements Read

The defendant must have had the requirements read for the unlawful act which led to the victim’s death. In R v Lamb (1967), the defendant pointed a loaded gun at his friend as a joke. He did not intend to frighten his friend, and his friend was not frightened as there was no bullet in the firing chamber. The defendant pulled the trigger without any intention of harming his friend. Unfortunately, he did not understand how a revolver works. On pulling the trigger the barrel rotated, moving a bullet into the firing chamber which was subsequently discharged. The defendant was found not guilty of manslaughter as he did not have the relevant requirements read for the unlawful act of assault.

Manslaughter by gross negligence

A very high degree of negligence (breach of duty of care)on the part of the defendant is required to secure a conviction for manslaughter by gross negligence. It is a question for the jury to determine whether the degree of negligence is great enough to convict for manslaughter.

The appropriate test in manslaughter cases involving a breach of duty was set out by the House of Lords in R v Adomako (1994). There must be a duty of care towards the victim based on the tort of negligence; a breach of that duty which caused death; and that breach was serious enough to be a crime. This depends on the seriousness of the breach of duty in all the circumstances in which the defendant was placed when it occurred.

The jury must consider whether the extent to which the defendant’s conduct (or omission) strayed from the proper standard of care required of him –thus involving a risk of death – was such that it should be judged criminal.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

Lucy on LinkedIn

Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.