R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273

Key point

  • Necessity or duress of the circumstances is not a defence to murder


  • 3 men (Ds) and a boy were shipwrecked with no food and water
  • The men killed the boy and ate him, Ds argued that it was necessary as they would have died otherwise
  • Ds were convicted of murder

Held (Queen’s Bench Division)

  • Appeal dismissed; the defence of necessity does not apply to murder

Lord Coleridge CJ

  • ‘To preserve one’s life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it. War is full of instances in which it is a man’s duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of shipwreck, of a captain to his crew, of the crew to the passengers, of soldiers to women and children, as in the noble case of the Birkenhead ; these duties impose on men the moral necessity, not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice of their lives for others, from which in no country, least of all, it is to be hoped, in England, will men ever shrink, as indeed, they have not shrunk. It is not correct, therefore, to say that there is any absolute or unqualified necessity to preserve one’s life.’