Provocation As A Defence Essay Research Paper

Provocation As A Defence Essay, Research Paper

Development of Defense of Provocation

Question: Critically evaluate the development of common law principles

applicable to the defence of provocation in criminal law from the decision in

Mancini v DPP [1942] AC 1 to Mascantonio v R (1995) 183 CLR 58. Assess the

degree to which the common law has proved inflexible in responding changing

societal needs and expectations. Are there other legal means of achieving

substantive justice?

At the time of the case of Mancini the concept of provocation as a

defence to murder was already a well established one dating back centuries. It

originated from the days when men bore arms and engaged in quarrels of violence

that often resulted in a homicide being committed. For provocation to be an

ample defence to murder it needed to be something which incited immediate anger,

or “passion” and which overcame a person’s self control to such an extent so as

to overpower or swamp his reason. What this something can be has been the

subject of many views through the centuries, and these views have strongly

depended upon the type of person whom the law has regarded as deserving

extenuated consideration when provoked to kill. In the words of Viscount Simon

“the law has to reconcile respect for the sanctity of human life with

recognition of the effect of provocation on human frailty. ” In this regard the

difficult concept of the “reasonable man” or the “ordinary man” has developed

and with it the legal doctrine that provocation must be such as would not only

cause the person accused to behave as he did but as would cause an ordinary man

to so lose control of himself as to act in the same sort of way. It is therefore

interesting to examine how the doctrine of common law in relation to provocation

has responded to changing societal needs and values. It also provides a useful

case study in which the development of common law doctrine can be observed. It

is useful to conduct a case-by-case analysis of the rule of provocation as a

defence to murder in order to more effectively observe the legal evolution that

has taken place.

In the case of Mancini v DPP [1942] AC 1 the appellant had been

convicted for murder after stabbing a man to death in a club. The appellant’s

counsel contended that the trial judge should have directed that the jury was

open to find provocation to reduce the appellant’s conviction to manslaughter.

Lord Simonds provided direction upon what kind of provocation would reduce

murder to manslaughter. He said that the provocation must temporarily deprive

the provoked individual of self-control and in deciding this regard must be had

to the following circumstances: the nature of the act which causes death, the

time which elapsed between the provocation and the act which caused death, the

offender’s conduct during that interval and all other circumstances which

indicate his state of mind. It is here that the well known characteristics of

“an unusually excitable or pugnacious” person are excluded from amounting to

provocation. Lord Simonds also said that “the mode of resentment must bear a

reasonable relationship to the provocation if the offence is to be reduced to


The case which was to follow Mancini was Holmes v DPP [1946] AC 588. In

this case a man killed his wife after a confession of unfaithfulness on her

behalf. He was convicted of murder and appealed that the defence of provocation

should have been left open to the jury. In his judgment of the case Viscount

Simon stated that the crux of the case was whether “mere words can ever be

regarded as so provocative to a reasonable man as to reduce to manslaughter

felonious homicide committed upon the speaker in consequence of such verbal

provocation.” “Mere words” however were attributed with having more than one

meaning. There were words which were provocative by insulting or abusive

language, and words that conveyed information of a fact, or an alleged fact. In

regards to verbal abuse Viscount Simon made his opinion clear; “the law expects

a reasonable man to endure abuse without resorting to fatal violence,” and in

regards to the admission of adultery he also expressed his opinion as “a sudden

confession of adultery without more can never constitute provocation of a sort

which might reduce murder to manslaughter.” Though these statements were indeed

firm, Viscount Simon himself recognised the need for flexibility in the common

law in climates of social change, saying “the application of common law

principles in matters such as this must to some extent be controlled by the

evolution of society.” Indeed, the need for change would in fact alter these

common law principles in the years to come.

The flexibility of the common law principles relating to provocation was

examined in Bedder v Director of Public Prosecutions [1954] 2 All ER 801. In

this case the appellant was a sexually impotent man who had been taunted by a

prostitute regarding his inabilities, whom he then killed. Once again it was

Lord Simonds who delivered the conclusive judgment in which he referred to his

decisions in Mancini and Viscount Simon’s decisions in Holmes. Despite Viscount

Simon’s acknowledgment of the need for flexibility in the common law, it would

seem that the time was not ripe for it. Lord Simonds ruled that the test in

Mancini and Holmes would stand, despite arguments for the appellant that the

“reasonable man” should be endowed with the appellant’s physical

“peculiarities.” Lord Simonds felt that this would make “nonsense” of the

objective test that he referred to in Mancini. It would seem that physical

defects held no sway on the scales that balanced “human frailty” against “the

sanctity of human life.” R v Enright [1941] VR 663 would further influence the

balance of the scales. In this case an illegitimate man had a particular

sensitivity to the word “bastard.” This was apparently the result of his

illegitimacy and a brain injury, or mental disorder. Enright killed a man who

had called him “bastard” a number of times. The appellant contended that the

defence of provocation should have been left to the jury. Chief Justice Herring

of the Supreme Court of Victoria did not agree with this contention. He referred

to the now well established “reasonable man” test, however preferred to refer to

it to the “ordinary man” test. He also stated that the concept of the “ordinary

man” meant discarding any obsession that Enright had with the word “bastard”,

and ignoring any mental disorder that he may have had. Herring used Bedder as an

authority for this decision. In Herring’s view the provocation that Enright was

exposed to (namely that of abusive language and an assault) would not have led

the “ordinary man” to do what Enright did and a competent jury would not have

found provocation. Despite the apparent inflexibility of this decision some

concessions were made. Herring conceded that the “ordinary man” would in fact be

endowed with the knowledge of illegitimacy and be “ordinarily” sensitive to this

fact. The “ordinary man” could in effect stand in the shoes of the accused.

Parker v The Queen (1963-64) 111 CLR 610 was the case of a man who

killed his wife’s lover, after she left him and their children for the deceased.

Chief Justice Dixon of the Supreme Court of New South Wales delivered the

primary judgment. It is interesting to note at this point that legislation had

been enacted in New South Wales with regard to provocation. This legislation re-

iterated many of the principles established at common law. Dixon, however,

believed that the common law principles still held some influence, and in this

case the main focus was premeditation and its relation to provocation. In

deciding this question Dixon used past case law, and also in his judgment stated

that he could not adhere to English policy regarding some cases.

The next case to examine provocation was an English case. In Director of

Public Prosecutions v Camplin a boy killed a man after being “buggered” by him,

and then laughed at. The main issue to arise was whether the “reasonable man”

test be applied to Camplin or “a reasonable boy of 15″ test. In his judgment

Lord Diplock distinguished this case from Bedder (as being aged 15 is not an

abnormal physical characteristic), and ruled that the cases of Bedder, Mancini,

and Holmes no longer held any authority especially after statutory change in

England in 1957. He ruled “the reasonable man referred to in the question is a

person having the power of self-control to be expected of an ordinary person of

the sex and age of the accused, but in other respects sharing such of the

accused’s characteristics as they think would affect the gravity of the

provocation to him.”

The case of Moffa v The Queen (1977) 138 CLR 601 was similar to Holmes,

where a wife admitted adultery, however the provocation here was of a more

aggressive nature than in Holmes. Moffa’s wife called him a “black bastard”, and

threw nude photographs of herself at Moffa after admitting promiscuity. Chief

Justice Barwick took a sympathetic view towards the provocation Moffa was

exposed to, and in his judgment stated “it was open to (the jury) to concluded

that an ordinary man, placed as was the applicant, would so far lose his self-

control as to form an intention at least to do grievous bodily harm to his


The case of R v Dincer [1983] 1 VR 460 would see the issue of ethnicity

raised. Out of this case, in a complete turnaround from the views held in Bedder,

Justice Lush of the Supreme Court of Victoria ruled that “characteristics of a

permanent ? nature, which marked the accused from ? the ordinary man in the

community might properly be taken into consideration for the purposes of the

“ordinary man” test.”

The limits of this new test would be explored in R v Voukelatos [1990]

VR 1. In an analysis on the defence of provocation Justice Murphy allows that

any beliefs held by the accused, whether they be delusional or otherwise, are

relevant to assess the degree of provocation to which the accused was exposed,

and the “reasonable man” may be attributed with them. He did, in effect allow

“self-induced” provocation.

Finally, the case of Masciantonio v The Queen (1995) 183 CLR 58 appears

to attempt to tie of some loose ends regarding provocation, and to a large

extent ignores the ramifications of Voukelatos. In judgments delivered by

Brennan, Deane, Dawson and Gaudron JJ the ordinary person is clarified: “the

characteristics of the ordinary person are merely those of a person with

ordinary powers of self-control. They are not the characteristics of the accused,

although when it is appropriate to do so because of the accused’s immaturity,

the ordinary person may be taken to be of the accused’s age,” they said however,

“the provocation must be assessed by reference to relevant characteristics of

the accused ? age, sex, race, ethnicity, physical features, personal attributes,

personal relationships or past history.”

Upon examination of the above cases it would appear that the common law

has proven quite flexible in responding to changing societal needs and

expectations. In the half century from Mancini to Mascantonio English and

Australian society has undergone some major changes. Whilst pluralism and

multiculturalism are the more obvious changes, there has been changes such as

material conditions of dependency, differing patterns of response to threats and

violence, and an emphasis on accommodating the position of women and children.

Perhaps the key indicator of the flexibility in the common law is the evolution

of the “reasonable man” test. We have moved from a position where the reasonable

man is the model of prudence presented in torts, to a position where age, gender

and ethnicity as well as any other permanent characteristics can be taken into

account by the jury in assessing the level of provocation an accused person has

been exposed to.

Perhaps the greatest proponent of these changes has been the issue of

substantive justice. What constitutes substantive justice is necessarily a

subjective opinion, and defined by the standards of society of the time. The law

regarding provocation has been analysed, questioned and reformulated a number of

times, and the most likely reason for this is to achieve substantive justice in

the eyes of the judiciary. Viscount Simon believed that as society advanced one

should expect more from its members, tipping the “scales” of provocation in

favour of regard for the sanctity of human life. However, it is also true that

as our society grows more complex there is a greater understanding of the human

character, and greater sympathies for others frailties.

Perhaps the defence of provocation has outlived its usefulness, and

justice could be achieved through easier means. However in R v Voukelatos [1990]

VR 1 Justice Murphy makes a relevant point that “My own view is that many, if

not most jurors would say, and, perhaps with more than a little justification

that the law is an ass, and, if not consciously, at least subconsciously, they

would dismiss such refinements and decide as they thought to be fair and just in

the circumstances.” What Justice Murphy failed to explore is the possibility

that the same rule may apply to the Judiciary, and it is this observation which

suggests that substantive justice will manifest itself in our legal system a

high proportion of the time.


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