New sentencing guidelines proposed for manslaughter offences

Today, the Sentencing Council has announced a consultation on its proposals for how offenders convicted of manslaughter should be sentenced in England and Wales.

It is the first time that comprehensive guidelines have been drawn up for these very serious and difficult cases, which could include an unintended death resulting from an assault or a workplace fatality caused by an employer’s negligence.

Because of the serious nature of these offences, the wide range of offending covered, and the relative infrequency that these cases come before individual judges, the introduction of guidelines will be particularly useful in promoting consistency in sentencing and transparency in terms of how sentencing decisions are reached.

The draft guidelines cover four types of manslaughter:

Unlawful Act manslaughter – this is the most commonly prosecuted form of manslaughter and includes deaths that result from assaults where there was no intention to kill or cause very serious harm.  It can also include unintended deaths that result from other crimes, such as arson or robbery.

Gross negligence manslaughter – this occurs when the offender is in breach of a duty of care towards the victim which causes the death of the victim and amounts to a criminal act or omission.  The circumstances vary greatly. In a domestic setting it could include parents or carers who fail to protect the victim from an obvious danger. In a work setting, it could cover employers who completely disregard the safety of employees. It could also arise in a medical setting when a practitioner falls far below the required standard in the treatment of a patient.

Manslaughter by reason of loss of control – This arises if the actions of an offender, who would otherwise be guilty of murder, resulted from a loss of self control, for example arising from a fear of serious violence.

Manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility – Someone guilty of this offence 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.

The proposed guidelines are based on an analysis of current sentencing practice, and in most areas, there are unlikely to be changes to sentence levels, but the Council expects that in some gross negligence cases, sentences will increase. An example could be where a death was caused by an employer’s long-standing and serious disregard for the safety of employees which was motivated by cost-cutting. Current sentencing practice in these sorts of cases is lower in the context of overall sentence levels for manslaughter than for other types.

Currently, there is very limited sentencing guidance for manslaughter beyond an existing guideline for manslaughter by reason of provocation which is now out of date following legislative changes to the partial defences to murder. There are no other existing guidelines for any other forms of manslaughter except corporate manslaughter which is covered by the Council’s health and safety offences guideline.

Sentencing Council member Mr Justice Holroyde said:

“Manslaughter always involves the loss of a human life and no sentence can make up for that loss. In developing these guidelines, we have been keenly aware of the impact caused by these offences and so the guidelines aim to ensure sentencing that properly reflects both the culpability of the offender and the seriousness of the harm which has been caused.”

The consultation is seeking views on various areas of the draft guideline, including culpability and harm factors and the proposed sentence levels. It runs until 10 October 2017 and can be accessed on the Council’s website.