Briefly explain the law relating to murder

Murder is a common law offence and is the unlawful killing of a human being, under the Queen’s peace, with malice aforethought. It is considered by most people to be one of the most serious of offences. It carries a mandatory life sentence.

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Murder is a common law offence and is the unlawful killing of a human being, under the Queen’s peace, with malice aforethought. It is considered by most people to be one of the most serious of offences. It carries a mandatory life sentence.

 

There are tariffs and guidelines as to the minimum term to be served depending upon the type of killing and any aggravating factors. The elements required to satisfy the offence of murder are the actus reus which consists of more than just an act. It requires the production of consequences or results i.e. the resulting death of a human being and the second element being the necessary mens rea.

 

The mens rea for the offence is ‘malice aforethought’. This is relatively straightforward but can be misleading. The word ‘malice’ may suggest to some that the prosecution needs to establish some ulterior motive or reason for the killing but this is not the case. It simply means the intention to kill or cause really serious harm. It might be surprising to learn that an individual need not have intended to cause the death of the victim but he or she may still be convicted of murder. This has been a long-standing part of our law. In Cunningham 1982, the House of Lords was unanimous in its opinion that the intention to cause grievous bodily harm constitutes enough blameworthiness to amount to malice aforethought.

 

The killing must be unlawful. The killing of enemy aliens by the armed forces in warfare, lawful executions, a policeman who kills in the execution of his or her duty and members of the medical profession, in certain situations, do not incur liability for murder. In respect of members of the medical profession, the practice of euthanasia in this country is illegal and can constitute murder.

 

However, in light of Airedale NHS Trust v Bland (1993) when the House of Lords held that it was not unlawful to withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration for such a person as the patient who was in a persistent vegetative state and was on a life support machine. It was lawful not to continue to supply the patient with care that would prolong life. There will probably be an ever-increasing number of applications by doctors and carers and families who may face these difficult decisions in the future. The Courts have laid down guidelines as to how these applications should be dealt with.

 

A ‘human being’ must be capable of a sustained life. The killing of a child whilst still in the womb by either the mother herself or by another person is not murder, although the guilty party could be convicted of another offence i.e. abortion. If however the attacker injures a foetus which later emerges as a live child which then dies of its injuries it could be possible for a charge of murder to be brought on the attacker. With the advance of medical science this may not only be a theoretical matter in the future.

 

For centuries, in order for a defendant to be liable for a homicide offence, the victim had to die within 366 days of the last act (or omission) done to the victim by the defendant. Over the years this rule had attracted considerable criticism. Advances in medical science i.e. life support technology, means that victims can be kept alive for much longer than a year and a day, even though the original injuries remain the actual cause of death.

 

The Law reform (Year and a day rule) Act 1996 has therefore abolished the old common law rule. Recently in one of the first cases of its kind – Keith Stephenson was convicted in this country of manslaughter following this change in the law. Originally he had been given 100 hours community service for grievous bodily harm after bludgeoning his victim over the head with a piece of wood in 2002. His victim developed epilepsy from the attack and died from a fit 18 months later. This new legislation allowed Stephenson to be charged with manslaughter.

 

 

 

(Word count 675)

 

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