Murder in English law

Murder is an offence under the common law of England and Wales. It is considered the most serious form of homicide, in which one person kills another either intending to cause death or intending to cause serious injury (originally termed malice aforethought even though it requires neither malice nor premeditation).


Actus reus

The definition of the actus reus (Latin for "wrongful act") of murder most usually cited is that by Edward Coke:

"Murder is when a man of sound memory and of the age of discretion, unlawfully killeth within any county of the realm any reasonable creature in rerum natura under the King's peace, with malice aforthought, either expressed by the party or implied by law, so as the party wo, or hurt etc. die of the wound or hurt etc.within a year and a day of the same.


"Unlawfully" means against law whether civil or criminal. "Malice" is one of the elements which can commonly distinguish a civil wrong (for which the wrongdoer is usually only liable to make financial reparation) from a criminal act (for which the wrongdoer is liable in the matter of murder to imprisonment for life); a death can still be "unlawful" (e.g. one caused by an act of negligence) even if no specific criminal offence is proved.

Kill (causation)

At the time of death, the defendant's acts or omissions must be the operating and most substantial cause of death with no novus actus interveniens (Latin for "new act breaking in") to break the chain of causation. Thus, the defendant cannot choose how the victim is to act, nor what personality to have. No matter whether brave or foolish, the defendant must expect the victim to:

try to escape and if he or she dies in that attempt, the chain of causation is not broken; or
try to fight back and so escalate the extent of the violence between them; or
seek medical treatment for the injuries sustained and, even if mistakes are made by the medical staff, this will not break the chain of causation unless the mistakes become the more substantial cause of death.

There are conflicting authorities on the above point, R v Jordan[1] and R v Smith[2] In short, any contingency that is foreseeable, will maintain the chain. Put the other way, only some unexpected act by a third party which places the original attack as a merely a background context, or some unpredictable natural phenomenon will break the chain.

Life in being

The defendant must cause the death of a reasonable creature in rerum natura (the whole phrase is usually translated as "a life in being", i.e. where the umbilical cord has been severed and the baby has a life independently of the mother). This was most recently considered in AG's Reference (No. 3 of 1994)[3] where the Law Lords reversed the Court of Appeal decision.[4] The defendant had stabbed a pregnant woman in the face, back and abdomen. Some days after she was released from hospital in an apparently stable condition, she went into labour and gave birth to a premature child, who died 121 days later. The child had been wounded in the original attack but the more substantial cause of death was her prematurity. According to Lords Mustill and Hope, a fetus (unborn child), although human and protected by the law in a number of different ways, is not a separate person from its mother. So, if the cause of death had been more clearly the antenatal injuries, this could have been a homicide, but there would have been no liability if the child had been miscarried or stillborn because it would not have had a life independent of the mother. This case also holds that the doctrine of transferred malice cannot apply to transfer intent from the mother to the baby after it is born.

Compare the situation in St George's Healthcare NHS Trust v S; R v Collins & Ors, ex parte S[5] where it was held a trespass when a hospital terminated a pregnancy involuntarily because the mother was diagnosed with severe pre-eclampsia. The court held that an unborn child's need for medical assistance does not prevail over the mother's autonomy and she is entitled to refuse consent to treatment, whether her own life or that of her unborn child depends on it (see a discussion in omission).

In the United States, there has been statutory intervention in the form of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in 2004, a federal law to clarify the criminal law at a federal level. Several states have passed, or are considering, similar legislation. The federal government has jurisdiction over crimes only in limited circumstances (when committed on federal property, against certain federal officials or employees, or by members of the armed forces). State governments have jurisdiction over all other crimes. The act provides that the mens rea from the initial assault is transferred to the fetus without having to prove actual knowledge or intent with respect to the child, or even knowledge of the pregnancy. Such death or injury to the child is charged as a separate offence whether the accused acted with or without knowledge of the pregnancy, and the penalty is the same as if the death or injury had been caused to the woman. English law, by contrast, does not accept the fetus as a separate person for these purposes.

Queen's peace

Among other things, the phrase "under the Queen's peace" operates to exclude the killing of an enemy combatant during a time of war or other international conflict. In the case of R v Clegg[6], a soldier in Northern Ireland was convicted of murder after shooting and killing a joyrider who had broken through the checkpoint. He was released after political pressure from the Attorney General. The important principle of the case is the requirement that the government officially considered the place in question to be a war zone, and therefore not under the Queen's peace. In more general terms it refers to the normal peacable conditions which all citizens are entitled to enjoy, as usually encountered in the sense of a lesser offender breaching the Queen's peace.

Year and a day

The requirement that death occur within a year and a day of any injury was abolished by the Law Reform (Year and a Day Rule) Act 1996.

Mens rea

The mens rea (Latin for "guilty mind") of murder is either an intention to kill (per the 2004 binding case of R v Matthews & Alleyne[7]) or an intention to cause grievous bodily harm (R v Moloney[8], R v Hancock & Shankland[9], and R v Woollin[10]). In Moloney, Lord Bridge was clear that, for the defendant to have the mens rea of murder, there must be something more than mere foresight or knowledge that death or serious injury is a "natural" consequence of the current activities: there must be clear evidence of an intention. This intention is proved not only when the defendant's motive or purpose is to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (direct intent), but when death or grievous bodily harm is a virtually certain consequence of the defendant's act (indirect or 'oblique' intent). Also note that, in Moloney, Lord Bridge held that the mens rea of murder need not be aimed at a specific person so, if a terrorist plants a bomb in a public place, it is irrelevant that no specific individual is targeted so long as one or more deaths is virtually certain. Further, it is irrelevant that the terrorist might claim justification for the act through a political agenda. How or why one person kills could only have relevance in the sentencing phase of a trial.


The actus reus and mens rea must coincide in point of time. The so-called single transaction principle allows a conviction where the defendant has both actus reus and mens rea together during the sequence of events leading to death. In Thabo Meli v R[11] the defendants thought they had already killed their victim when they threw him over a cliff and abandoned the "body". Thus, although the act actually causing death was performed when the defendants did not have the intention to kill, the conviction was confirmed.


The first words Coke's definition refer to the M'Naghten Rules on the insanity defense (now also including diminished responsibility) and infancy. Hence, if any of the general defences such as self-defence apply, an accused will be acquitted of murder, and if any of the partial defences introduced under the Homicide Act 1957 apply, the liability will be reduced to manslaughter. The defence in the 1860 Eastbourne manslaughter case was that the schoolteacher Thomas Hockey was acting under parental authority in using corporal punishment (he was charged with murder but found guilty of manslaughter). If a partial defence is successful, it will allow the sitting judge full discretion as to the sentence given to the offender, these can range from a conditional discharge to a life sentence (which accounts for around 10 percent of voluntary manslaughter sentences).

Another defence in medical cases is that of double effect. As was established by Judge Devlin in the 1957 trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams, causing death through the administration of lethal drugs to a patient, if the intention is solely to alleviate pain, is not considered murder.[12]

The defences of duress and necessity are not available to a person charged with murder. The statutory defence of marital coercion is not available to a wife charged with murder.[13]

Restriction on institution of proceedings

Proceedings against a person for murder, if the injury alleged to have caused the death was sustained more than three years before the death occurred, or the person has previously been convicted of an offence committed in circumstances alleged to be connected with the death, may only be instituted by or with the consent of the Attorney General.[14]


A count charging a single principal offender with murder will now be in the following form:[15][16]




A.B., on the . . . day of . . ., murdered J.S.

The date which is specified in the indictment is the date on which the deceased died, because the offence is not complete until that date.[17]

Joinder of counts

A count of murder may be joined with a count charging another offence of murder,[18] or a count charging a different offence.[19] A count of conspiracy to murder may be joined with a count of aiding and abetting murder.[20]

See also R v Greatrex (David Anthony), The Times, 2 April 1998, CA

Alternative verdict

On the trial of an indictment for murder, the jury cannot return an alternative verdict to the offence charged in that indictment under section 6(3) of the Criminal Law Act 1967.

A person found not guilty of murder on such an indictment may be found guilty of any of the offences listed below, but not any other offence:

  • Manslaughter[21]
  • Causing grievous bodily harm with intent to do so, contrary to section 18 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861[21]
  • Any offence of which a person found not guilty of murder may be found guilty under an enactment specifically so providing,[22] namely:
    • Child destruction, contrary to section 1(1) of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929[23]
    • Infanticide, contrary to section 1(1) of the Infanticide Act 1938[24]
    • Aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring suicide or an attempt to commit suicide, contrary to section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961[25]
  • Any offence of which a person found not guilty of murder may be found guilty under section 4(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1967.[22]
  • Attempted murder, or an attempt to commit any other offence of which a person found not guilty of murder may be found guilty, contrary to section 1(1) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981.[26]

For this purpose each count is considered to be a separate indictment.[27]


A British subject may be charged with murder wherever the killing took place and no matter what the nationality of the victim.[28]

Mode of trial

Murder is an indictable-only offence.[29]


Where a person convicted of murder appears to the court to have been aged under eighteen at the time the offence was committed, the court must sentence him to be detained during Her Majesty’s pleasure.[30]

In any other case, where a person aged under twenty-one is convicted of murder the court must sentence him to custody for life.[31]

In any other case, a person convicted of murder must be sentenced to imprisonment for life.[32]

Tariff System

The mandatory life sentence for murder comprises three elements:

  1. A minimum term representing retribution without any prospect of parole;
  2. This starts on the expiry of the first and runs until the parole board decides that the person safely may be released on licence;
  3. At any time during the remainder of his or her life, the licence may be revoked and the offender will then be detained until it is considered safe to release him or her again on licence. This element does, in a real sense, represent a life sentence.

The tariff sets the minimum time that must be spent in prison before an offender can be considered for parole. Following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in T v UK[33] and the consequent statutory change in Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 s 60, the judge must now indicate in open court the appropriate tariff for an offender aged under 18 who is convicted of murder. The period specified by the judge is a 'sentence', which may be appealed or be the subject of an Attorney General's Reference.[34] Criminal Justice Act 2003 s 271 sets the same rule for adults. The Practice statement (Life sentences for murder) (2000) 2 Cr. App. R. 457 set the tariff for adults, i.e. one aged 18 or over at the time of the offence, with a starting point of 14 years as the minimum term for a case with no aggravating or mitigating factors, and lists the factors which might suggest either a higher or a lower than normal minimum term in an individual case. Mitigating factors include a mental illness, battered woman syndrome, using excessive force in self-defence or mercy killing. Assassination, contract killing, killing to subvert the justice system (such as killing a witness, etc.) will be aggravating factors.

The general tariffs are available from the Sentencing Advisory Panel [1].

The trial judge has always been expected to make a recommended minimum term, and in 1983 the Home Secretary began amending (and usually increasing) the minimum term which was recommended by the trial judge. But this system was declared illegal in 2002 by both the High Court and the European Court of Human Rights following a successful challenge by convicted murderer Anthony Anderson. Anderson had been convicted of a double murder in 1988 and the trial judge recommended that he should serve at least 15 years before being considered for parole, but six years later his tariff was increased to 20 years by the Home Secretary Michael Howard.

Since then, trial judges have been obliged to recommend a minimum term and only the Lord Chief Justice has the power to make any amendments; either through an appeal by the Attorney General to increase a sentence which is seen as unduly lenient, or an appeal by the prisoner to have his or her minimum term reduced.

Life imprisonment has been the only option that judges have had when sentencing murderers since the death penalty was abolished in 1965, and the average life sentence prisoner spends 14 years behind bars. More serious cases, which included aggravating factors such as a rape or robbery, have seen murderers spend as much as 20 or even 30 years in prison. A handful of notorious multiple murderers have remained in prison until their deaths; these include Myra Hindley and Ronnie Kray. An estimated 20 prisoners in Britain have been recommended for lifelong imprisonment; these include Mark Hobson, Donald Neilson, Dennis Nilsen, Jeremy Bamber and Steve Wright. Lengthy minimum terms have also been imposed on high profile killers including Ian Huntley (40 years) and Robert Black (35 years).

See the Crown Prosecution Sentencing Manual for statutory guidelines and case law on sentencing.

Inchoate offences


Provocation was formerly a partial defence to murder. See also the 1 Jac 1 c 8 and the Murder Act 1751.


Section 4 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1851 (14 & 15 Vict c 100) provided that in any indictment for murder preferred after the coming into operation of that Act, it was not necessary to set forth the manner in which, or the means by which, the death of the deceased was caused, but it was to be sufficient in every indictment for murder to charge that the defendant did feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, kill and murder the deceased. That Act came into operation of the 1 September 1851.[35]

That section was replaced by section 6 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 provided that in any indictment for murder, it was not necessary to set forth the manner in which, or the means by which, the death of the deceased was caused, but it was to be sufficient in any indictment for murder to charge that the defendant did feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought kill and murder the deceased. That section was repealed by the Indictments Act 1915.

The following specimen count was formerly contained in paragraph 13 of the Second Schedule to the Indictments Act 1915 before it was repealed.




A.B., on the . . . day of . . ., in the county of . . ., murdered J.S.


See sections 1 to 3 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and Parts II and III of the Homicide Act 1957.


  1. ^ (1956) 40 Cr App R 152
  2. ^ [1959]soldier stabbed, dropped twice, poor medical treatment, defendant still guilty of murder
  3. ^ [1998] AC 245
  4. ^ [1996] 2 WLR 412
  5. ^ [1998] 3 All ER
  6. ^ [1995] 1 All ER 334.
  7. ^ [2003] EWCA Crim 192
  8. ^ (1985) 1 AER 1025
  9. ^ (1986) 1 AC 455
  10. ^ [1999] AC 82
  11. ^ [1954] 1 All ER 373; [1954] 1 WLR 288
  12. ^ Margaret Otlowski, Voluntary Euthanasia and the Common Law, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 175-177
  13. ^ The Criminal Justice Act 1925 (15 & 16 Geo.5 c.86), section 47
  14. ^ The Law Reform (Year and a Day Rule) Act 1996, sections 2(1) and 2(2) and 2(3)(a)
  15. ^ Archbold Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice, 1999, para. 19-85 at p. 1584
  16. ^ The Inns of Court School of Law. Drafting Manual. 2001.
  17. ^ Archbold Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice, 1999, para. 19-85 at p. 1584
  18. ^ R v Kray and others [1970] 1 QB 125, 53 Cr App R 569, [1969] 3 WLR 831, [1969] 3 All ER 941, CA
  19. ^ Connelly v Director of Public Prosecutions [1964] AC 1254, [1964] 2 WLR 1145, [1964] 2 All ER 401, 48 Cr App R 183, HL
  20. ^ R v Schepke, The Times, 4 May 1995, CA
  21. ^ a b The Criminal Law Act 1967, section 6(2)(a)
  22. ^ a b The Criminal Law Act 1967, section 6(2)(b)
  23. ^ The Criminal Law Act 1967, section 6(2)(b) and the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, section 2(2)
  24. ^ The Criminal Law Act 1967, section 6(2)(b) and the Infanticide Act 1938, section 1(2)
  25. ^ The Criminal Law Act 1967, section 6(2)(b) and the Suicide Act 1961, section 2(2)
  26. ^ The Criminal Law Act 1967, section 6(2)(c)
  27. ^ The Criminal Law Act 1967, section 6(7)
  28. ^ The Offences against the Person Act 1861, section 9
  29. ^
  30. ^ The Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, section 90; this section replaces section 53(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933
  31. ^ The Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, section 93. Section 93 replaces section 8(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1982. Section 93 will be repealed by sections 74 and 75 of, and paragraph 182 of Schedule 7 to, and Schedule 8 to, the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 when it comes into force. This is consequential on section 61 of that Act, which will abolish the sentence of custody for life when it comes into force.
  32. ^ The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, section 1(1)
  33. ^ (2000) 30 EHRR 121
  34. ^ McBean (2002) 1 Cr. App. R. (S) 98
  35. ^ The Criminal Procedure Act 1851, section 31

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