This Report forms part of the Commission’s Third Programme of Law Reform 2008-2014 and brings together material from its Consultation Paper on Homicide: the Mental Element in Murder (2001) and Consultation Paper on Involuntary Manslaughter (2007). The Report contains the Commission’s final recommendations on these areas and a draft Homicide Bill. The Commission’s work on homicide is intended to assist in the eventual codification of criminal law, in conjunction with the work of the Criminal Law Codification Advisory Committee.
Current law on murder and involuntary manslaughter
The law of homicide in Ireland is currently divided into murder and manslaughter. Murder occurs if a person intended to kill, or cause serious injury to, another person who dies as a result. Murder convictions can include situations where a killing was planned in advance; where the victim was knowingly shot; and where the accused is aware that the natural consequences of their actions would lead to death. For example, in The People (DPP) v John Cullen (1982), the accused was convicted of murder after he had thrown a fire bomb through the window of a house and where three women in the house died in the resulting blaze.
Manslaughter is an unlawful killing that is not murder and currently consists of two categories, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter deals with what would otherwise be murder but where there is some excusing circumstance - such as provocation - which reduces the offence from murder to manslaughter. The Commission is examining on voluntary manslaughter in a separate project on defences in criminal law, so the Report being published today deals with murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter currently comprises two sub-categories. First, manslaughter by an unlawful and dangerous act, where the killing involves an act constituting a criminal offence, carrying with it the risk of bodily harm to the person killed. The People (DPP) v Wayne O’Donoghue (2005), which involved an assault resulting in death, was a conviction for unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter. The second sub-category is gross negligence manslaughter, where the death arises from a negligent act or omission by the accused involving a high risk of substantial personal injury. In The People (DPP) v Cullagh (1998) the accused was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter after a woman died when her chair became detached from a 20-year-old chairoplane ride at the accused’s funfair. He had bought the chairoplane after it had been in an open field for 3 years. Although the accused only became aware after the death that there was rust on the inside of the chairoplane which had caused the accident, he was aware of its generally decrepit state when he bought it.
Outline of the Report’s recommendations
The Commission considers that the label “murder” should cover the most heinous killings. The Commission therefore recommends that it should continue to be murder where the accused intended to kill or cause serious injury; but the Commission also recommends that the mental element in murder should be broadened to include reckless killings manifesting an extreme indifference to human life. Under this proposal, a person who planted a bomb in a busy office block could be convicted of murder if someone dies in the blast even if his main purpose was to cause criminal damage, rather than to injure or kill anyone. The Commission also repeats a recommendation it made over 10 years ago that the mandatory life sentence for murder should be replaced in order to take account of variations in moral culpability in different types of murder.
As to unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter, the Commission recommends retaining the existing key elements, namely, that the act which causes death constitutes a criminal offence and poses a risk of bodily harm to another; and that it is an act which an ordinary reasonable person would consider to be dangerous, that is, likely to cause bodily harm. But the Commission also recommends that low levels of deliberate violence should be removed from the scope of unlawful and dangerous act
manslaughter and be prosecuted as a new, lesser, offence of “assault causing death.”
The Commission also recommends retaining the main elements of the current gross negligence manslaughter test, namely that the negligence which caused the death of the victim was of a very high degree and involved a high degree of risk or likelihood of substantial personal injury to others. But the Commission adds that a person should only be liable if he or she was mentally and physically capable of averting to, and avoiding the risk of death at the time of the fatality.
As to related motoring offences, the Commission recommends that dangerous driving causing death should continue to exist alongside the more serious offence of manslaughter. Drivers could be prosecuted for manslaughter for road deaths but only where there is very high culpability, such as where joy-riding or high alcohol levels and speeding are involved. The Commission also recommends that a new offence of “careless driving causing death” should be introduced to cover fatalities caused by careless motoring.