This is the first time that a comprehensive guideline has been drawn up for these very serious and difficult cases, which could range from an unintended death resulting from an assault, to a workplace fatality caused by a negligent employer. The serious nature of manslaughter, combined with the great variation in cases, and the fact that cases do not come before individual judges very frequently, means the introduction of guidelines will be particularly useful in promoting consistency in sentencing and transparency in terms of how sentencing decisions are reached.
Overall, this guideline is unlikely to change sentence levels but it is expected that in some gross negligence cases sentences will increase. This could be in situations where, for example, an employer’s long-standing and serious disregard for the safety of employees, motivated by cost-cutting, has led to someone being killed. Current sentencing practice in these sorts of cases is lower in the context of overall sentence levels for manslaughter than for other types.
The types of manslaughter covered by the guideline are:
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 vary greatly. For example, it could involve a situation where two friends briefly argue and one pushes the other causing him to fall and hit his head with fatal results. It could involve someone going out looking for a fight and attacking someone forcefully but not intending to kill. It could also include unintended deaths that result from other crimes, such as arson or robbery. 105 offenders were sentenced for this offence in 2016.
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 a child from an obvious danger. In a work setting, it could cover employers who completely disregard the safety of employees. 10 offenders were sentenced for this offence in 2016.
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. 12 offenders were sentenced for this offence in 2016.
Manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility – Someone guilty of this offence would have been suffering from a recognised mental condition that affected their responsibility at the time of the offence, without which they would have been convicted of murder. 26 offenders were sentenced for this offence in 2016.
The guideline ensures comprehensive guidance where previously it was very limited. Until now, there has been a guideline only for corporate manslaughter, which comes under the Council’s health and safety offences guideline, and a guideline by the Council’s predecessor body for manslaughter by reason of provocation, which is now out of date following legislative changes to the partial defences to murder.
Sentencing Council member Lord Justice Holroyde said, “Manslaughter offences vary hugely – some cases are not far from being an accident, while others may be just short of murder. While no sentence can make up for the loss of life, this guideline will help ensure sentencing that properly reflects the culpability of the offender and the unique facts of each case.”