R v Howe – 1987

April 01, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to R v Howe – 1987

The landmark case of R v Howe, decided by the House of Lords in 1987, remains a significant precedent in English and Welsh criminal law. It dealt with the defense of duress in the context of murder.


The case involved two sets of appellants. Howe and Bannister, along with a third individual named Murray, were charged with two murders and conspiracy to murder. The victims were subjected to brutal violence and torture before being killed. The defense for Howe and Bannister rested on the claim of duress. They alleged that a violent individual known only as “M” coerced them into participating in the crimes by threatening their lives and the lives of their families.


The central legal question before the House of Lords was whether duress could be a valid defense to a charge of murder.


The House of Lords delivered a clear judgment. Duress, they ruled, was not a defense to murder. This applied not only to the person who directly caused the death (the principal in the first degree) but also to anyone who participated as a principal in the second degree (those who actively assisted in the murder).


The court’s reasoning focused on the gravity of murder. They argued that the sanctity of human life is paramount, and no threat, however serious, could justify taking another person’s life. The decision acknowledged that duress can be a valid defense for lesser offenses. However, for the most serious crime of murder, the court distinguished between the core act of killing and minor participation under duress. If someone, under duress, played a minor role (e.g., holding a victim), the charge might be reduced to manslaughter. However, directly causing the death or actively assisting in the murder could never be excused by duress.


R v Howe is a cornerstone case in the law of duress. It established a clear boundary for the defense. Duress cannot be used to justify the most serious crime of murder. This decision has provided legal clarity and consistency in prosecuting murder cases where the accused claims coercion.

 Additional Considerations

Subsequent cases, such as R v Hasan [2005], have reaffirmed the principles established in R v Howe. However, some legal scholars argue that the decision might be too rigid. They propose a more nuanced approach, considering the nature of the threat, the imminence of danger, and the availability of escape routes when evaluating a duress defense in murder cases.


R v Howe remains a vital case in English and Welsh criminal law. It clarifies the limited scope of the duress defense, ensuring that the gravity of murder is upheld. While discussions around the absolute nature of the decision continue, the case stands as a strong statement on the importance of protecting human life.

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