An introduction to the offence of manslaughter
Published in: June 2017
It’s not uncommon to mistake manslaughter for murder due to the fact that both offences may result in a death of another person. Therefore, the logical line of inquiry is what makes manslaughter different from murder?
The classes of manslaughter
Manslaughter as an offence falls into two categories: voluntary manslaughter, where the intention of the offender was to cause death or grievous bodily harm, and involuntary manslaughter, where neither death, nor grievous bodily harm was intended.
Voluntary manslaughter: murder may be reduced to manslaughter in the event of provocation or excessive self-defence. In South Australia and Victoria, a suicide pact may also be deemed as voluntary manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter: the offence of involuntary manslaughter generally encompasses an unlawful and dangerous act, or criminal negligence.
What actions are considered unlawful and dangerous in relation to manslaughter?
Danger is objective, and the High Court in Wilson v The Queen (1992) 174 CLR 313 stated the following:
“For a person to be guilty of manslaughter by an unlawful and dangerous act, the circumstances must be such that a reasonable person in the accused’s position would have realised that he or she was exposing another or others to an appreciable risk of serious injury. It is not sufficient that there was a risk of some harm resulting, albeit not a serious harm.”
In relation to manslaughter, intent forms a part of the offence, with Crockett J ruling in R v Haywood  VR 755 (at 758):
“If there is to be mens rea in a case of manslaughter by an unlawful and dangerous act it seems to me that where the unlawful act is said to be an assault and battery, then there must be an intentional assault and battery, and if an act which is said to constitute the assault and battery in question is an involuntary one then I find it difficult to believe such an act can sustain a verdict of manslaughter. If the jury are not satisfied that it was a voluntary act in the sense of being an intentional assault and battery, it is my view that the correct verdict would be one of acquittal.”
Due to the diversity of situations in which manslaughter may occur, manslaughter attracts a wide range of sentences as was noted in Tajber v The Queen (1986) 13 FCR 524; 72 ALR 299 (FCA) where Gallop J said (at 538; 314):
“Manslaughter is a crime which encompasses a diverse group of situations ranging in their degree of heinousness from cases akin to murder to those where no sanction, or only a symbolic one, is called for. It is notorious that the circumstances of the commission of the crime of manslaughter can attract widely disparate sentences...”
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