The Sentencing Council has published new guidelines for manslaughter offences today, which set out for the first time comprehensive guidance for courts sentencing these very serious and difficult cases.
Since there are several types of manslaughter and sentences can differ very significantly for those convicted of it, we thought it would be helpful to write a blog post about this offence more generally to give an overview of the offence the different types and why sentences can range so widely.
Manslaughter is an extremely varied area of offending. It can involve an unintended death resulting from an assault, a fatality caused by negligence or someone who kills while suffering from a mental disorder. Sentence levels can also vary widely, from suspended sentences up to life sentences being given.
When courts are sentencing offenders, it is the seriousness of the offence which decides the level of sentence given, within the parameters allowed by law, such as maximum sentences.
Seriousness is determined by assessing two factors: the harm caused to the victim and the culpability of the offender. The nature of the harm will vary from offence to offence: the harm caused by fraud and assault are of course very different. Some offences will also involve an inherently greater degree of harm than others, for example the harm caused by common assault can never be of the level involved in grievous bodily harm.
The culpability of the offender can also vary greatly. For example, some offenders commit offences with a great deal of planning, others are opportunists acting on the spur of the moment. Some may have a leading role in a group committing a crime, others may be pressured into collaborating.
Manslaughter always involves the highest level of harm, since by definition it always involves a fatality. Because of this, the law allows a sentence up to life imprisonment. However, manslaughter stands out in terms of the gamut of sentence levels that are given, which can range from suspended sentences to substantial life terms. This reflects the hugely different circumstances in which a manslaughter occurs and the levels of culpability. Manslaughter can involve an offence that is not far from being an accident, while another may be just short of murder.
Manslaughter falls into two broad categories: involuntary and voluntary.
Involuntary manslaughter is unlawful killing without the intent to kill or cause really serious harm and is a common law offence. There are two classes of involuntary manslaughter: unlawful act manslaughter and manslaughter by gross negligence.
Unlawful act manslaughter is charged when death occurs due to a criminal act which a reasonable person would realise must subject some other person to at least the risk of some physical harm. It doesn’t matter whether or not the offender knew that the act was unlawful and dangerous or whether harm was intended. This is by far the most common type of manslaughter with around 100 offenders being sentenced annually. It often involves deaths that come about as a result of assaults, a typical scenario being the so-called “one punch” manslaughter. These can vary enormously in the planning and intention of the offender. There could be a situation not far from being an accident such as a minor argument between friends where one pushes the other who unexpectedly falls and suffers fatal injuries. In another situation, someone with a history of violence may go out looking for a fight and hit a stranger as hard as possible in an unprovoked attack. The harm is the same, but the culpability of the offenders in these situations is very different.
In one case, sentenced in 2016, a “silly row” between two men who had been close friends for 45 years led to one hitting the other, who fell, striking his head, which caused his death. The family of the victim asked for the sentence to be suspended, but a 28-month sentence was imposed. By contrast, another man with a history of violence, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter was sentenced to six years in prison for killing a man in an unprovoked attack in the street.
Manslaughter can also arise out of other unlawful acts such as robbery, arson and affray. In 2016, two men received sentences of 13 years and 9 years respectively for robbing a pizza delivery man who was punched to the ground with fatal results, while in 2013, Mick Philpott was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 15 years – the equivalent of a 30-year determinate sentence – after seven children died when he set fire to his house.
Manslaughter by gross negligence occurs when the offender is in breach of a duty of care towards the victim, the breach causes the death of the victim and, having regard to the risk involved, the offender’s conduct was so bad as to amount to a criminal act or omission. It could involve parents or carers failing to protect a child from an obvious danger, employers completely disregarding the safety of employees or medical practitioners giving wholly inadequate care to a patient. This type of manslaughter occurs less frequently with 10 offenders being sentenced in 2016. Of these, all were sentenced to determinate sentences, two of which were suspended, ranging from two to 6 years.
Voluntary manslaughter occurs when all the elements for murder are present, including an intention to kill or cause really serious harm, but the crime is reduced to manslaughter by reason of loss of control or diminished responsibility. 12 offenders were sentenced for manslaughter by reason of loss of control in 2016. All received determinate custodial sentences in the range of five years to 18 years.
Diminished responsibility means that the offender would have been suffering from a recognised mental condition which affected their responsibility at the time of the offence, without which they would have been convicted of murder.
26 offenders were sentenced in 2016. Of these 18 were made subject to hospital orders under the Mental Health Act, two were sentenced to life imprisonment and the remaining six were sentenced to determinate sentences, one of which was suspended, ranging from two to 19 years.
There is one further type of manslaughter – corporate manslaughter, which is covered by the Sentencing Council’s existing guideline on health and safety offences. This offence applies to organisations rather than individuals so the only sentence that can be given is a fine, though this can run into many millions of pounds. An organisation is guilty of this offence if the way in which it managed its activities both caused a person’s death and was a gross breach of a duty of care that the organisation owed to the deceased. It is further required that a substantial element of the breach was the way in which the organisation’s activities were managed or organised by its senior management.
With the numerous types of manslaughter offence and the great variety of offending, the introduction of the new guidelines, which come into force in November 2018, will promote consistency of sentencing. This will mean that even though the circumstances may vary enormously from case to case, the approach to assessing them is the same and this will help ensure that proportionate sentences will be passed.