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Murder VS Manslaughter: What's the difference?

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Murder and manslaughter are among the most serious criminal offences. However, it is not always easy to know the difference between these two types of offence.

Here at JD Spicer Zeb Solicitors, we understand how important it is for clients to understand the charges they are facing and are here to help you grasp the key differences between murder vs manslaughter.

While we hope this information is useful, please note, it should not be taken as legal advice. If you need legal support with murder or manslaughter charges, then please get in touch and our team can advise you.

What are the offences of Murder and Manslaughter?

Murder and manslaughter are both forms of unlawful killing. Whilst murder refers to a single offence, manslaughter encompasses four separate offences, which can be divided into two types: voluntary and involuntary.

What is murder?

An offence of murder is committed where the offender:

  1. Unlawfully kills another person.
  2. Was of ‘sound mind and discretion’ at the time of the offence.
  3. Had the intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH).

What is manslaughter?

Voluntary manslaughter is made up of the offences of:

  • Manslaughter by reason of loss of control; and
  • Manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility

These are the offences a person can be convicted with upon a successful plea of a partial defence to a murder charge. Offences of voluntary manslaughter are therefore quite similar to murder.

Involuntary manslaughter refers to the offences of:

  • Unlawful act manslaughter (sometimes called ‘constructive manslaughter’); and
  • Gross negligence manslaughter

These offences have their own individual requirements, and involuntary manslaughter is therefore much more distinct from murder.

What are the differences between the offences of Murder and Manslaughter?

The key differences between the offence of murder and those of manslaughter are:

  1. The mens rea (the ‘mental’ element)
  2. The sentence
  3. The available defences

What is the mens rea?

In order to commit a criminal offence, the defendant must usually have a particular mental state. This is called the mens rea.

For the offences of murder, manslaughter by reason of loss of control, and manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, there must be intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.

However, a person can commit the offences of involuntary manslaughter with no intention to cause any harm whatsoever, let alone to kill.

Unlawful act manslaughter is premised on the commission of an unlawful act, or ‘base offence’. Provided the mens rea requirements for that ‘base offence’ are met, this will be sufficient for the offence of manslaughter.

This means, if the ‘base offence’ is arson, the defendant need only have been reckless as to whether property belonging to another would be destroyed or damaged, resulting in the death of a person, in order to be convicted of unlawful act manslaughter. This is a stark contrast to the intent to kill or cause serious harm required for murder and voluntary manslaughter.

The offence of gross negligence manslaughter demands even less in terms of a defendant’s mental state; there are no mens rea requirements at all. This means that gross negligence manslaughter can technically be committed by a person who was actively trying to prevent death.

Of course, it is unlikely that such conduct would be deemed bad enough to be considered criminal (a requirement of gross negligence manslaughter), but it remains possible.

In summary, then:

  • Murder – You must intend to kill or cause grievous bodily harm
  • Manslaughter by reason of loss of control – You must intend to kill or cause grievous bodily harm
  • Manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility – You must intend to kill or cause grievous bodily harm
  • Unlawful act manslaughter – You must satisfy the mens rea requirements of the ‘base offence’, but not intend to kill or cause grievous bodily harm
  • Gross negligence manslaughter – You must not intend to kill or cause grievous bodily harm, but otherwise your mental state is not preclusive of conviction

What are the sentences for murder and manslaughter?

The sentence that you can receive upon conviction differs widely between murder vs manslaughter.

Murder carries a mandatory life sentence, meaning that a person convicted of murder will be subject to criminal supervision for life. A minimum term will be spent in custody, and any release will be on licence. Further, a person convicted of the most serious cases of murder will be sentenced to a life sentence with a ‘whole life order’, meaning there is no chance of release.

Conversely, whilst the offences of manslaughter can result in a life sentence, this is discretionary. This means that a judge can decide whether or not to give a life sentence, and most often they will choose not to. The sentence that a person convicted of manslaughter will receive depends heavily on the facts of the case, and can range anywhere between:

  • Manslaughter by reason of loss of control – 3 to 20 years’ imprisonment
  • Manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility – 3 to 40 years’ imprisonment
  • Unlawful act manslaughter – 1 to 24 years’ imprisonment
  • Gross negligence manslaughter – 1 to 18 years’ imprisonment

Thus, the time you will serve in prison is impacted heavily by the particular homicide offence you commit.

What are the available defences for murder and manslaughter?

If you are found to have satisfied all of the elements of a criminal offence, you may still be acquitted if you successfully raise a defence. However, the defences available will vary depending on the offence.

Given the gravity of the offence of murder, defendants can rely on fewer complete defences. However, there are also special partial defences to a charge of murder, which will reduce the charge to manslaughter.

The defences available to a charge of murder, and their effects, are:

  • Self-defence – an acquittal
  • Necessity – an acquittal
  • Automatism – an acquittal
  • Insanity – a special verdict of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’
  • Loss of control – a charge of manslaughter by reason of loss of control
  • Diminished responsibility – a charge of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility

As voluntary manslaughter is already the result of a successful defence plea, there are no defences available to charges of manslaughter by reason of loss of control or manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.

Further, given how high the threshold is for satisfying all of the elements for gross negligence manslaughter, once they are found to be satisfied, there are no defences available.

However, whilst there are no special partial defences to unlawful act manslaughter, there is a much wider range of complete defences. This is because any defence to the ‘base offence’ will also operate as a defence to the manslaughter charge.

Thus, the following defences are always available to a charge of unlawful act manslaughter:

  • Self-defence – an acquittal
  • Duress – an acquittal
  • Automatism – an acquittal
  • Insanity – a special verdict of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’

However, the following defence may also be available depending on the ‘base offence’:

  • Consent – an acquittal

Credit for guilty plea

In short, where a guilty plea is indicated at the first stage of proceedings, you could receive a reduction from 1/6th off a penalty for murder and 1/3rd off a penalty for manslaughter.

More information regarding the potential outcomes for indicating a guilty plea can be found here.

What can I do if I’m arrested for murder or manslaughter?

If you are arrested on suspicion of murder or manslaughter, remembering your legal rights can help you to avoid unintentionally saying or doing anything that could undermine your defence.

The four key points to keep in mind following an arrest are:

  1. You do not have to answer any questions asked by the police, and legal advice should be taken before saying anything.
  2. You should never answer any police questions without a solicitor present.
  3. You have the right to free legal representation.
  4. You can use the duty solicitor available or choose your own lawyer.

When making an arrest, officers are required to tell you the specific offence or offences you are accused of committing. They must also caution you with the words:

‘You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence’.

After a police interview in connection with a suspected offence of murder, the potential outcomes include:

  • Release with no further action;
  • Release under investigation;
  • Detention in custody; and
  • charging with a specific offence.

If you are charged with murder or manslaughter:

  • A hearing date will be set; and
  • You will either be:
    • Released on bail; or
    • Kept in custody until your court hearing

If you are released with no further action or under investigation, you can still potentially be rearrested or summonsed to attend a court hearing at any time.

Should I speak to a solicitor about murder and manslaughter charges?

If you are facing a charge of murder or manslaughter, the importance of specialist legal advice and representation cannot be underestimated. At JD Spicer Zeb, our criminal defence solicitors have substantial experience in supporting clients facing such accusations and have the knowledge required to provide you with an effective defence through every stage of proceedings.

Our team is highly skilled in dealing with the various types of evidence relied on for these types of serious criminal cases, including forensics such as fingerprint and DNA analysis, digital evidence such as mobile phone records and text messages, and witness testimony. As a result, we can work effectively to identify any potential flaws in the case against you and make sure any evidence needed to support your defence is brought to light.

We have over 45 years of experience, with our expertise being recognised through a Law Society accreditation in Criminal Litigation. We have a strong track record of success and, over the years we have been able to establish close relationships with many of the country’s leading criminal defence barristers.

If you are facing a charge or need advice on the distinction between murder vs manslaughter, we are well placed to provide you with the support you need.

Related matters:

We also provide support and guidance on various other matters that are related to murder and manslaughter, including:

Fees and funding

We are always open and honest with regards to our legal fees.

If you need to attend court in relation to a murder or manslaughter charge, legal aid public funding may become available. This depends on whether the case justifies the grant of public funding.

Where you do not qualify for legal aid public funding, the alternative option is to fund the case on a private basis.

To find out more about the way we handle fees (both legal aid public funding and private fees) for murder and manslaughter charges, please use the links provide below:

Contact our criminal defence lawyers today

If you are due to attend the police station in relation to murder or manslaughter, require any urgent specialist advice, or immediate representation, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

You can contact our dedicated criminal defence lawyers in London, Birmingham, and Manchester by telephone on:

Or email: solicitors@jdspicer.co.uk

Alternatively, you can fill out our quick online enquiry form, and we will get back to you quickly.

24/7 legal representation for murder and manslaughter charges

Please get in touch for a free consultation with one of our expert criminal defence solicitors, as well as immediate representation and advice for murder and manslaughter charges.

We are available to represent clients all over England and Wales at any time, so please contact our Emergency Number at 07836 577 556.

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If you believe your case is likely to have serious consequences for you now, or in the future and you have the means to pay for this service

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Common questions

We always work with the most experienced and best leading UK barristers, KCs (Kings Counsel). We cover all criminal cases 24/7 at the police station and court. Offices in London, Birmingham, and Manchester cover cases across England and Wales. We can offer Legal Aid and affordable Private fee agreements. We can see you the same day, including virtually. Our Senior Partners supervise all of our cases.

How quickly do you respond?

We respond quickly even during out of hours. We do not get our work by paying for online adverts but based on the fact that few criminal law firms can match our 45 years of experience. Most of our cases are still from word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients. We are called daily by dissatisfied clients from firms with less experience than us. We respond very quickly to new enquiries. We know what clients seek and so we update clients rapidly.

Can you get cases dropped?

Yes, read about the recent cases we've helped our clients with here.

We always keep you updated and give straightforward advice. We will get cases dropped early where the case is weak or should not be prosecuted. We will be upfront with you about where you can benefit from a good result with an early guilty plea, such as a discount on your sentence. As we work on cases across all levels with clients from all walks of life, we are excellent at giving clear, spot-on advice. As an established firm, we can allocate a whole team to your case often at short notice to secure evidence to minimise the damage to you. 

Have you won any awards?


"JD Spicer Zeb demonstrated a clear commitment to client service through their work with vulnerable and diverse individuals in what can be severely traumatic circumstances".

Do you offer free consultations?

Where it is possible, we aim to provide an initial consultation to you. If we can speak to you, we can if required inform you about  –

  • Whether we can take the case on and our relevant experience.
  • Public and private funding benefits.
  • Assistance in applying for legal aid where we are likely to accept instructions.
  • An outline of options in police interview only. We will not advise you on which option to adopt.
  • Providing our free written guide explaining the police station process.
  • The gravity of routine and day-to-day offences you face.
  • Consequences of not attending the court or police station.
  • Consequences of interfering with any witnesses.
  • Retaining any evidence in support of your case.
  • If possible an outline of the elements of the offence that the police or CPS must prove.
  • This consultation will normally be by telephone or email and will only be for as long as we deem necessary to establish if we can act for you. If we cannot usefully give you any advice in this manner then we will not continue with the consultation. We will not discuss the case in depth for you to be able to decide on your plea or any significant aspect of the case, as this cannot be undertaken informally.
  • Referring you, if possible, to other firms for matters out of our specialism or if we cannot help.

Consultations do not apply to the following cases –

  • If we do not intend to take the case on.
  • Road Traffic cases, drink driving, drug driving, driving bans, speeding, no insurance, mobile phone use, points etc.
  • In all cases where we do not have the capacity to take your case or the availability of suitably qualified staff to provide an initial free consultation. This is applicable in all cases but especially where a more senior lawyer is required because of your personal needs or the complexity of the case.
  • Harassment/stalking/ coercive behaviour/malicious communications or road traffic cases and most sensitive cases. These cases are often too complicated to assess in short consultations.
  • The locations concerned may be too distant to represent you adequately or it may not be cost-effective for you or us.
  • The case is too complicated to assess or raises various charges or facts, complexity, or history to be considered informally or in a short consultation.
  • In most Legal aid transfers where legal aid is granted to another firm except in very grave cases, we may assess the case and merits for a transfer.
  • If your relationship has broken down with your existing solicitor or several solicitors.
  • If you have been released under investigation and have already had a police station attendance. 
  • If you hold legal aid with another firm and seek a second opinion.
  • If you are calling on behalf of the client as a friend or family member unless you have full authority and full facts.
  • To businesses.
  • Advising whether you were given good advice by your other solicitor.
  • Whether to decide to plead guilty or not guilty.
  • Whether you have an arguable defence in law or factually complicated defences.
  • Any advice you have had after your first court appearance.
  • Any advice on appeal on conviction or sentence.
  • If we feel we are unable to communicate with you.
  • If we are likely to be conflicted or breach our professional rules.