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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Necessity as a defence to murder

Published in Criminal Law and Justice Weekly, Vol. 175, 7 May 2011, p 270

Two media stories in 2010 of great human interest but with tragically different outcomes were those of the trapped miners in Chile and in New Zealand.  No insensitivity to the familes of the New Zealand mining disaster victims is intended hereby, but the possibility of men trapped in such a manner raises one of the classic problems of criminal law and jurisprudence, namely how far the rules of civilised society can apply in wholly exceptional circumstances. 

Suppose a group of people were trapped and could not be reached in time to prevent starvation without them resorting to cannibalism. That was the scenario envisaged by Lon Fuller in his classic essay “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers” (Harvard Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, p 616). Fuller's inspiration was, of course, one of the most infamous cases in English law, R v Dudley and Stephens [1881-85] All ER Rep 61, the case of the shipwrecked sailors killing and eating the luckless cabin boy.

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