Murder is one of two offences, alongside manslaughter, which constitute homicide. This offence is a common law crime, developing through the system of judicial precedent rather than via any statute laid down by Parliament. The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 establishes that the punishment for murder is a mandatory life sentence.
The classic definition of murder is provided by Sir Edward Coke in Institutes of the Laws of England (1797).
Murder is when a man of sound memory, and of the age of discretion, unlawfully killeth within any country of the realm any reasonable creature in rerum natura under the King’s peace, with malice aforethought, either expressed by the party or implied by law, so as the party wounded, or hurt, etc. die of the wound or hurt, etc. within a year and a day after the same.
Elements of the offence
Broken down, murder requires:
- The unlawful killing;
- Of a human being;
- By an act or omission;
- Which results in the death of that human being;
- Within the Queen’s Peace;
- With malice aforethought.
There is no longer the requirement that the death occur within a year and a day of the defendant’s actions. This rule was abolished by the Law Reform (Year and a Day Rule) Act 1996.
Elements (1)-(5) constitute the actus reus (conduct element) of the crime of murder, whilst element (6) relates to the mens rea (mental element). These elements and the cases explaining them will be broken down in the sections which follow.