• In the case of Dudley and Stephens 1884 14 QBD 723, it was found that duress or necessity of the circumstances cannot be a defence to murder.

Facts of the Case

  • Three men and one boy were stranded in a shipwreck with no food nor water.
  • As hunger grew, the men killed the boy and subsequently ate him.
  • The men tried to argue that this was a necessary thing to do as they would have died otherwise.
  • The men were convicted of murder.

Issues in Dudley and Stephens 1884 14 QBD 723

  • Could the three men successfully plead necessity as a defence to murder

Held by Queens Bench Division

  • Appeal dismissed

Lord Coleridge CJ

  • Held that the defence of necessity was not permitted.  
  • “Now it is admitted that the deliberate killing of this unoffending and unresisting boy was clearly murder, unless the killing can be justified by some well-recognised excuse admitted by the law. It is further admitted that there was in this case no such excuse, unless the killing was justified by what has been called ‘necessity’. But the temptation to the act which existed here was not what the law has ever called necessity. Nor is this to be regretted. Though law and morality are not the same, and many things may be immoral which are not necessarily illegal, yet the absolute divorce of law from morality would be of fatal consequence; and such divorce would follow if the temptation to murder in this case were to be held by law an absolute defence of it.
  • It is not needful to point out the awful danger of admitting the principle which has been contended for. Who is to be the judge of this sort of necessity? By what measure is the comparative value of lives to be measured? Is it to be strength, or intellect or what? It is plain that the principle leaves to him who is to profit by it to determine the necessity which will justify him in deliberately taking another’s life to save his own. In this case the weakest, the youngest, the most unresisting, was chosen. Was it more necessary to kill him than one of the grown men? The answer must be ‘No.”