Case Briefs

R v Dudley and Stephens

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The defendants were aboard a ship which sank on July 5, 1884. They and two other crew members (Brooks and Parker) managed to get to a lifeboat with limited rations. On the 24th, having finished the rations and being unable to catch any fish, Dudley pushed his penknife into Parker's jugular vein while Stephens stood by to hold the youth's legs if he struggled. The three fed on Parker's body, with Dudley and Brooks consuming the most and Stephens very little. The crew were rescued on the 29th of July. They were forthcoming about what had happened, believing themselves to be immune from prosecution under the Custom of the Sea.


  1. Is necessity a defence to a charge of murder?


Judgment for the Crown.


Coleridge, writing for the court, found that there was no common law defence of necessity to a charge of murder, either on the basis of legal precedent or the basis of ethics and morality:

It would be a very easy and cheap display of commonplace learning to quote from Greek and Latin authors, from Horace, from Juvenal, from Cicero, from Euripides, passage after passage, in which the duty of dying for others has been laid down in glowing and emphatic language as resulting from the principles of heathen ethics; it is enough in a Christian country to remind ourselves of the Great Example [Jesus Christ] whom we profess to follow.
Further, he questioned who was qualified to make the decision of who should live and who die were the principle to be allowed. Coleridge further observed that such a principle might be the "legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime". However, they were sensible of the men's awful predicament so while they were sentenced to the statutory death penalty, there was a recommendation for mercy. The sentences was eventually commuted to six months imprisonment.


There is no defence of necessity to a charge of murder.

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