Define: Premeditated Murder

Premeditated Murder
Premeditated Murder
Full Definition Of Premeditated Murder

Premeditated murder, also known as first-degree murder, is considered one of the most heinous criminal acts due to its deliberate and intentional nature. This overview will delve into the legal definition, elements, judicial processes, and significant case law concerning premeditated murder in British law. It will also explore the distinctions between premeditated murder and other forms of homicide, the requisite mens rea (mental state), and potential defences.

Legal Definition

In British law, murder is generally defined as the unlawful killing of a human being under the Queen’s peace with malice aforethought. Premeditated murder takes this a step further, requiring that the act be planned or deliberated in advance. This premeditation distinguishes it from other types of murder and manslaughter.

Key Elements of Premeditated Murder

To secure a conviction for premeditated murder, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  1. Unlawful Killing: The defendant caused the death of another person.
  2. Human Victim: The victim must be a living human being at the time of the act.
  3. Under the Queen’s Peace: The act must not be justified under any war or combat scenario.
  4. Malice Aforethought: This encompasses both the intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH).
  5. Premeditation: There must be evidence that the killing was planned or considered beforehand.

Mens Rea (Mental State)

Premeditated murder requires a specific type of mens rea. The prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant had a deliberate intention to kill or cause serious harm. This intent must have been formed prior to the act, differentiating it from a killing that occurs spontaneously or in the heat of the moment.


In British law, intention can be direct or oblique. Direct intention means the defendant’s aim or purpose was to cause death or serious injury. Oblique intention, as clarified in cases like R v Woollin (1999), occurs when the defendant foresees death or serious injury as a virtually certain consequence of their actions, even if it was not their primary aim.


Premeditation involves planning or forethought. This can be proven through various forms of evidence, including:

  • Statements made by the defendant.
  • Evidence of a plan or preparation, such as acquiring a weapon.
  • Conduct indicating a calculated approach to committing the murder.
  • Motive, which can support the existence of premeditation but is not required to prove it.

Distinction from Other Forms of Homicide

Second-Degree Murder

While not explicitly categorized in British law as it is in some jurisdictions, second-degree murder can be understood as a killing with malice aforethought but without premeditation. This encompasses situations where the defendant intended to cause serious harm but did not plan the killing in advance.


Manslaughter is a lesser offence than murder and can be divided into voluntary and involuntary manslaughter:

  • Voluntary Manslaughter: Occurs when the defendant had the intent to kill or cause serious harm but did so under circumstances that partially excuse or justify the act, such as loss of control (formerly known as provocation) or diminished responsibility.
  • Involuntary Manslaughter: Involves unintentional killing due to recklessness or criminal negligence, or during the commission of a lesser unlawful act.

Judicial Process


Premeditated murder cases begin with a thorough investigation by law enforcement. This includes gathering physical evidence, forensic analysis, witness statements, and any relevant digital evidence (e.g., emails, text messages, internet searches).


The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) makes the decision whether to charge a suspect with premeditated murder. They must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and that prosecution is in the public interest.


Premeditated murder cases are tried in the Crown Court before a judge and jury. The trial process includes:

  1. Opening Statements: Both the prosecution and defence present an overview of their case.
  2. Presentation of Evidence: This includes witness testimony, expert evidence, and physical evidence.
  3. Cross-examination: Both sides have the opportunity to question the opposition’s witnesses.
  4. Closing Arguments: Both sides summarise their cases, highlighting key evidence and arguments.
  5. Judge’s Summing Up: The judge provides legal directions to the jury, explaining the relevant law and how it should be applied to the facts.
  6. Jury Deliberation: The jury considers the evidence and reaches a verdict.


If found guilty, the judge will impose a sentence. In cases of premeditated murder, the mandatory sentence is life imprisonment. However, the judge has discretion in setting the minimum term before eligibility for parole, considering factors such as the severity of the crime and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances.

Significant Case Law

R v Vickers (1957)

In R v Vickers, the defendant broke into a shop and, upon being discovered by the elderly shop owner, inflicted severe injuries resulting in her death. The court held that an intention to cause GBH, which results in death is sufficient to establish malice aforethought for murder. This case clarified that intent to cause serious harm can underpin a murder conviction, even if there was no explicit intent to kill.

R v Cunningham (1982)

R v Cunningham further defined the scope of malice aforethought. The defendant attacked a victim intending to cause serious harm, resulting in the victim’s death. The court reaffirmed that the intention to cause serious injury that leads to death constitutes murder.

R v Woollin (1999)

In R v Woollin, the House of Lords provided crucial guidance on oblique intention. The defendant threw his baby son against a hard surface, causing fatal injuries. The court held that if the defendant foresaw death or serious injury as a virtually certain outcome of his actions, this could amount to intent for murder.

Defences to Premeditated Murder

Several defences may be raised to contest a charge of premeditated murder:


A defendant may argue that they acted in self-defence, believing it necessary to use force to protect themselves from imminent harm. For this defence to succeed, the force used must be reasonable and proportionate to the threat faced.

Diminished Responsibility

Under Section 2 of the Homicide Act 1957, as amended by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, a defendant may claim diminished responsibility if they were suffering from an abnormality of mental functioning that substantially impaired their ability to understand their conduct, form rational judgments, or exercise self-control. This defence reduces a murder charge to manslaughter.

Loss of Control

Previously known as provocation, the defence of loss of control is outlined in Sections 54 and 55 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. It applies where the defendant lost self-control due to a qualifying trigger, such as fear of serious violence or being subjected to extremely provocative conduct. This defence also reduces a murder charge to manslaughter.


A defence of insanity can be raised if, at the time of the offence, the defendant was suffering from a mental disorder that rendered them incapable of understanding the nature of their act or knowing that it was wrong. This defence, if successful, results in a special verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, often leading to a hospital order rather than imprisonment.


Premeditated murder, as defined in British law, is a deliberate and intentional act that carries severe legal consequences. Understanding the legal elements, requisite mens rea, judicial processes, and potential defences is crucial for a comprehensive grasp of this serious crime. Significant case law has shaped the interpretation and application of these principles, ensuring that justice is served while also providing avenues for defendants to contest charges under specific circumstances. As the legal landscape evolves, ongoing scrutiny and refinement of these concepts will continue to play a vital role in the administration of criminal justice in the UK.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 15th June 2024.

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