What is the difference between murder and manslaughter?

Murder and manslaughter are both acts that result in a person’s death – but technically speaking, these two terms mean very different things. You might be wondering what the difference is between murder and manslaughter – which one is more serious and what the penalties are? 

It’s worth pointing out that this is not legal advice, and if you are facing charges of either murder or manslaughter you should contact a qualified criminal lawyer immediately. 

Let’s take a closer look at these two crimes and what they actually mean. 

First, what is homicide and how does it fit in?

Before we delve into the details of murder and manslaughter you might be wondering what homicide means. Homicide is simply the act of killing someone – whether legally or illegally. Homicides can include a wide range of different situations. For example, a soldier killing someone in a war (legally) or someone unintentionally or intentionally killing a person in any other context. Murder and Manslaughter are therefore both different types of homicides.

What is murder?

In Western Australia, the Criminal Code Compilation Act deals with the definition of murder. It also articulates the penalties associated with murder. According to Section 279, Murder is when a person unlawfully kills another person and:

  1. the person intends to cause the death of the person killed or another person; or 
  2. (b) the person intends to cause a bodily injury of such a nature as to endanger or be likely to endanger, the life of the person killed or another person; or 
  3. (c) the death is caused by means of an act done in the prosecution of an unlawful purpose, which act is of such a nature as to be likely to endanger human life. 

What is manslaughter?

Manslaughter is defined in section 280 of the Criminal Code as when a person unlawfully kills another person under such circumstances as not to constitute murder. Essentially that means an illegal killing where the death or deaths of the victims were reasonably foreseeable. 

What is the difference between murder and manslaughter?

Manslaughter differs from murder in a number of ways. The main difference, however, is in the intent of the person who commits the act. Murder is where a person intends to cause the death of a person who is killed or even a bodily injury that may endanger life that results in death. Manslaughter, on the other hand, refers to when someone is killed either unintentionally or in a non-premeditated fashion. These fundamental differences naturally give rise to different penalties. 

How do penalties for murder and manslaughter compare?

Although both are serious crimes, murder and manslaughter carry different penalties. 

Here’s how they compare:

Penalties for murder:

Section 279 (4) sets out the punishment for murder. For adults, someone who is guilty of murder faces life imprisonment, unless:

  • that sentence would be clearly unjust given the circumstances of the offence and the person; and 
  • the person is unlikely to be a threat to the safety of the community when released from imprisonment.

If the person satisfies either of the above exceptions, they are liable to 20 years imprisonment. 

Section 5A of the Criminal Code states that: if the offence is committed by an adult offender in the course of conduct that constitutes an aggravated home burglary, the court sentencing the offender, if it does not impose a term of life imprisonment must, notwithstanding any other written law, impose a term of imprisonment of at least 15 years.

Penalties for Manslaughter :

Someone who commits manslaughter is liable to life imprisonment. If the person commits manslaughter while engaged in aggravated home burglary, the court must, in the event that it does not impose a life sentence, impose a term of imprisonment for at least 15 years. If the offender is a juvenile, the law contains certain safeguards which lower the sentence and, depending on the circumstances, may result in a sentence of at least 3 years – as per the Young Offenders Act 1994. 

Which is more serious – Murder or Manslaughter?

While both murder and manslaughter involve the death of a victim or multiple victims, the key difference in terms of severity in the eyes of the law is the intent behind the act that results in the death of said victim/s. Because murder involves the intent to kill or at the very least a pre-meditation the crime of murder is, therefore, more serious when compared to that of manslaughter. 

Defences for murder and manslaughter 

There are certain circumstances where there may be a legal defence against charges of murder or manslaughter. These involve situations of:

  1. Self defence: If someone is attacked they have the right to use self defence to preserve their own lives. In court, the prosecution will need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self defence. 
  2. Duress: Another defence to manslaughter is where a person commits a homicide under duress. This would mean someone killed because of the threat of death or serious injury if they did not. The burden of proof also lies with the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant was not acting under duress. 

Facing charges? Get the advice you need

If you are facing a change involving either murder or manslaughter, it’s important you speak to a qualified criminal lawyer as soon as possible. Both murder and manslaughter are serious charges which carry heavy sentencing. They should never be taken lightly and deserve to be dealt with in a timely and sensible manner. Understand your rights and get the advice you need – contact a criminal law firm today.