What happens to someone who’s committed a murder in the UK? Assume that the person will be caught.


1 Answer 1


What happens to someone who’s committed a murder in the UK? Considering the person will be caught.

This is a basic and somewhat vague question so I will provide a basic and very general answer.

The name of the court with proper jurisdiction, the relevant criminal procedural rules, and the substantive law that applies varies within the U.K. In particular in Scotland and the various dependencies of the U.K. differ significantly from England-Wales. There are some minor differences in Northern Ireland. England-and-Wales are treated as one for most purposes, but there are some slight differences at the very lowest levels but none materially impact a murder case.

If they are caught in England and Wales they are arrested, interviewed, charged then brought before the next available Magistrates' Court who send the defendant to the Crown Court for trial. As a Magistrate has no power to grant bail for murder the defendant must be remanded in custody until he can make an application for bail before the Crown Court, but the default position is that bail should not be granted for murder unless in very exceptional circumstances. In other U.K. jurisdictions, the names of the courts will differ and there may be some other fine details that aren't the same in the pre-trial process but the same general outline applies.

If they are outside of the U.K. they will be subject to either an International or European Arrest Warrant and extradited to the UK at the request of the U.K. Government under the terms of the relevant extradition treaties. On arrival in the UK they are arrested for murder and the process proceeds in the same manner. (If they are someplace that does not have an extradition treaty with the U.K., the trial may be deferred until U.K. officials have an opportunity to arrest him and are often dogged in attempting to accomplish, perhaps, for example, while the suspect is on holiday somewhere that there is an extradition treaty.)

Prior to the trial, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the defence will prepare their cases and return to court at various times to settle any issues etc before going to the expense of a full trial. Also, at any time the CPS determine the case to be too weak for a realistic prospect of conviction or the suspect is innocent, they are supposed to dismiss or amend the indictment.

The defendant is then tried for murder before a jury (almost always, but not in every single case, e.g., if the defendant admits guilt and the plea is accepted in appropriate proceedings before a judge). The CPS instruct a barrister to present their case with another barrister acting on behalf of the defendant. The process is for juvenile defendants is pretty much the same as for adults, apart from added safeguards to ensure the juvenile understands the proceedings and is not put at any disadvantage due to their age.

All of the jurisdictions within the U.K., however, will have a trial that involves presentation of sworn evidence and exhibits and opening and closing arguments from both prosecution and defence counsels to a jury, procedural objections, cross-examination, and sometimes offering of additional evidence under the supervision of a single judge; normally with the defendant present. There will be some means of court reporting, and unless the judge orders otherwise (which is only done in relatively exceptional circumstances), the trial will be open to the public and the press to observe.

If the defendant dies before the legal process to secure a conviction is not completed, the case is dismissed as moot.

If the defendant is convicted of a homicide offense the trial/sentencing judge will impose a prison sentences, which is "fixed by law", with a life sentence in the case of the most serious homicide offense, murder (there are multiple homicide offenses that hinge largely on the intent of the defendant, often a murder prosecution will include less included homicide offenses as options for convictions). Only in exceptional cases this will be a whole-life term, in all others the judge will prescribe a minimum sentence according to the judicial sentencing guidelines after which the defendant may be released on licence, which is what an American would call parole. Any offences committed on licence will normally result in a recall to prison.

The U.K. does not have a death penalty and does not authorise corporal punishment. The vast majority of people who are arrested and tried for murder are convicted, although there are sometimes acquittals or hung juries.

This conviction may be appealed by the defendant to the Court of Appeal (and again up to the Supreme Court) (the intermediate appellate court may not be the same in all U.K. jurisdictions) which reviews the proceedings to determine if the law was applied correctly and if there was sufficient evidence to support the verdict. If the court finds that this was not the case, it can vacate the conviction and orders an appropriate revised disposition of the case depending upon the circumstances justifying the reversal of the trial court. If the appeal court affirm the trial verdict then the sentence continues to be carried out. Usually, but not always, the defendant will be in prison pursuant to the sentence imposed pending an outcome of any appeal.

Eventually, if the sentence imposed upon a conviction is affirmed (and not a whole life term) the prisoner may be released on licence (which includes some post-release supervision) and is free and to about living their life again, subject to some collateral consequences based upon their criminal record (e.g. inability to work in certain occupations).

If the defendant is acquitted, then they go free and cannot be tried again for the same offence, unless the exceptions under the double jeopardy provisions that apply in that jurisdiction apply. The main exception of double jeopardy is for newly discovered evidence of guilt in a case where there was an acquittal.

If the person convicted is not a British citizen, they will usually be deported at the conclusion of their sentence if international law allows for it.

There are a few exceptions to these rules that come up in a tiny percentage of all U.K. murders that apply (1) in the case of people subject to courts-martial such as active duty military service members, (2) in the case of foreign diplomats with diplomatic immunity, (3) when the murder is classified as an act of terrorism, and (4) in the case that the defendant has a title of nobility that calls for special treatment such as, e.g., Prince Charles (the current heir to the throne) or the Queen. These special cases are really too esoteric for the plain vanilla facts stated in the question and involve unique processes that are very different from the usual one described above. The fourth case is one that does not exist in my country (the U.S.) and in other countries that are republics rather than constitutional monarchies like the U.K., although most countries have some special rules for criminal trials of their very highest officials (like Presidents and Prime Ministers).

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    Thank you so much, this is exactly what I needed, you helped me a lot with this. Nov 14, 2020 at 15:42
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    Before scrolling down, I expected something short a la "arrested, tried, and locked away, duh", but this "basic and very general answer" is just excellent Nov 14, 2020 at 22:04
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    Lots of US terminology and spellings ("defense", "jail", "offense", etc), that seem odd in an answer about the British justice system, and Prince Charles is not a "Crown Prince", although he is, I suppose, a "crown prince" . Double jeopardy has been permitted in England and Wales in certain (exceptional) circumstances since the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and in Scotland since the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act 2011. In brief, a person may be tried again for the same offence when there is "new and compelling evidence". Nov 15, 2020 at 14:59
  • @MichaelHarvey Fair enough. I'm a U.S. attorney and so while I have basic familiarity with the U.K. system (having studied a fair amount of comparative law) and having lived in a country with British spelling (N.Z.) it still doesn't come naturally to me. I'll add a slight edit to the double jeopardy part.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 17, 2020 at 0:37
  • @MichaelHarvey I incorporated most of your proposed edits, but kept it a bit more general.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 17, 2020 at 0:55

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