R v Dudley and Stephens

Read this description of the famous Queen v. Dudley and Stephens case. As you read, consider whether you agree with the ruling in this case, and if you would rule differently, as well as why you would do so. This text discusses the famous lifeboat case, which established the legality of choosing to murder out of necessity. Although the details of the case are quite graphic, this fact itself may serve as a prompt for many of us to revise our initial intuitions about the moral status of killing one to save many others.


The Queen's Bench Division sat on 4 December under Lord Chief Justice Lord Coleridge. James appeared for the prosecution, leading Charles and Danckwerts. At the beginning of the hearing, the report of the Exeter trial was read out, at some length, in its entirety. This allowed Collins to submit that the special verdict had been altered. As much was ultimately admitted and it was eventually agreed that it was best that the special verdict be restored to the version agreed by the jury. The resultant attempt to challenge the jurisdiction was rejected by the judges.

Collins submitted the court was not competent to return a verdict as the Exeter jury had not given a conditional verdict (openly stating that the jury would find in accordance with the court's ruling on the law). This troubled judges, especially Grove but was dismissed as one of form – judges alone overturn verdicts on the basis of law.

James submitted that there was no common law authority to support the proposition that necessity was a defence to murder. The Saint Christopher case was rejected as a precedent because it had not been formally recorded in the law reports.

Lord Coleridge

Before Collins started his submissions, Lord Coleridge instructed him to confine his remarks to murder to dismiss the idea of necessity as a partial defence leading to a conviction for manslaughter by analogy with the partial defence of provocation. Collins responded by citing United States v. Holmes (1842) and discussing the various theoretical and ethical arguments in favour of a necessity defence.

At the end of his submissions, the judges withdrew. They returned after a few moments and Lord Coleridge declared, "We are all of the opinion that the conviction should be affirmed but we will put our reasons in writing and give them on Saturday next". After some technical legal discussion, Lord Coleridge committed Dudley and Stephens to Holloway Prison, until Tuesday, 9 December, when the court would deliver its reasons and its sentence.

The panel found that there was no defence of necessity to a charge of murder:

  • on the basis of legal precedent; nor
  • on the basis of ethics and morality.

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 would be a very easy and cheap display of commonplace learning to quote from Greek and Latin authors, from Horace, from Juvenal, from Cicero, from Euripides, passage after passage, in which the duty of dying for others has been laid down in glowing and emphatic language as resulting from the principles of heathen ethics; it is enough in a Christian country to remind ourselves of the Great Example [Jesus Christ] whom we profess to follow.

Further, the judges questioned who was qualified to make the decision of who should live and who should die, were the principle to be allowed. They further observed that such a principle might be the "legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime". They were sensible of the men's awful predicament.

It must not be supposed that in refusing to admit temptation to be an excuse for crime it is forgotten how terrible the temptation was; how awful the suffering; how hard in such trials to keep the judgment straight and the conduct pure. We are often compelled to set up standards we cannot reach ourselves, and to lay down rules which we could not ourselves satisfy. But a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might himself have yielded to it, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime.

Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to the statutory death penalty with a recommendation for mercy.