The Current Law of Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter appears to be the most controversial and uncertain offence of unlawful homicide. This may be a result of its broad scope in covering: “all types of homicide which are unlawful at common law, but where the accused lacks the guilty mind required for murder. ” In Walker[1992] 13 Cr. App. R. 474, the Court of Appeal went so far as to note that the offence of involuntary manslaughter: “… ranges in gravity from the borders of murder right down to those of accidental death. ”

Complicating matters for the purpose of fair labelling principles, the line between murder and manslaughter per se, is further obscured. This lack of a definitive distinction between voluntary manslaughter and manslaughter, as well as between murder and manslaughter obviate the need for reform of the law regulating and defining involuntary manslaughter. In Andrews v Director of Public Prosecutions [1937] AC 567 Lord Atkin noted that: “… of all crimes, manslaughter appears to afford most difficulties of definition, for it concerns homicide in so many and so varying conditions…

The law… recognizes murder on the one hand based mainly, though not exclusively, on an intention to kill, and manslaughter on the other hand, based mainly, though not exclusively, on the absence of intention to kill, but with the presence of an element of ‘unlawfulness’ which is the elusive factor. ” Although this observation was made by Lord Atkin well over 70 years ago, the elusive factor with respect to manslaughter continues to characterize the stat of the law. One of the greatest difficulties for the offence of manslaughter is a result of judicial wrangling.

Quite often the terms “gross negligence” and “recklessness” have been used to distinguish between different categories of manslaughter so much so that the Law Commission in its 1994 Consultation Paper titled, Involuntary Manslaughter commented that the two terms used in conjunction with involuntary manslaughter: “… is at present extremely uncertain as to what is meant by these two terms. It is not even clear whether the two terms describe different categories of manslaughter or are just different ways of describing the same thing. ”