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R v Dudley and Stephens is an important English case regarding

the relationship between criminal law and morality. This case concern
about three seamen and a deceased boy whereby they were stranded at
sea on a small emergency boat and the deceased was killed in order to
preserve the others life. The case was decided in year 1884 in the
Queens Bench Division. Before looking into the principle of law, the fact
of the case will be discussed briefly.
On 5th July 1884, three able- bodied seamen, namely Thomas
Dudley, Edward Stephens and Brooks together with the deceased
Richard Parker, an English cabin boy who aged between 17 and 18
years were cast away in a storm on the high seas 1600 miles from the
Cape of Good Hope. They had no choice but to put into an emergency
boat of the English yacht. In the open boat, there were no supply of water
and food except for 2 tins of turnips. The turnips helped them to subsist
for 3 days. On the fourth day, a small turtle was caught. After consuming
the remains of the turtle, they were starved for 7 days with no food and 5
days with no water. Hence, on the next day, Dudley and Stephens
suggested to Brooks that someone should be sacrificed in order to save
the rest. However, Brooks disagreed and Richard Parker was not


Again on 24th July, Dudley proposed to Stephens and Brooks that

they should draw lots to decide who would be killed to save the others
but Brooks refused to do so. On that day, Dudley and Stephens spoke of
their families and Dudley pointed out that it would better to sacrifice
Parker to preserve the others life. Dudley suggested that Parker should be
killed if they were not succoured by tomorrow morning. On the next day,
no vessel appeared and Dudley told Brooks to have a sleep, and made
signs to Stephens and Brooks that Parker had better to be murdered.
Stephens agreed but Brooks still refused to consent.

Meanwhile, Richard Parker was lying at the bottom of the boat

helplessly. He was ill due to famine and the drinking of sea water. He was
too weak to resist, nor did he ever assent to be killed. After a prayer
offered by Dudley, he with Stephenss assent, told Parker that his time
was come. Then, Dudley stabbed his throat using a knife and killed him.
Consequently, all three men cannibalised his body and drank his fresh
blood for 4 days. On the fourth day of the incident, three of them were
rescued by a passing vessel.


Subsequently, Dudley and Stephens were brought to trial at Exeter.

Had they not fed upon the body of Richard Parker, they would probably
have died of starvation within four days. Richard Parker, being in an
extremely weaken stage, was likely to have died before them. At that
point of time, there was no passing veil, nor any reasonable possibility for
them to be rescued. Under such circumstances, there was no alternative
chance of saving life as they would die of famine unless they cannibalise
Richard Parker or any one of themselves. However, this case was
adjourned until 25th November at the Royal Courts of Justice and further
adjourned to 4th December sat under Lord Chief Justice Lord Coleridge.

The first issue in this case is whether killing under these

circumstances is murder or not. According to various definitions of
murder as provided in books, murder is implied as if they do not state,
the doctrine, that in order to save your own life you may lawfully take
away the life of another, when that other is neither attempting nor
threatening yours, nor is guilty of any illegal act whatever towards you or
anyone else.


The doctrine receives no support from Lord Hale who viewed that
necessity which justified homicide is considered a justification. Private
necessity which justified the taking of ones life to preserve his own is
commonly regarded as "self-defence." The court cited the authority of
Lord Hale where Lord Hale opined that one who kills an innocent person
under assault and in the risk of death would not be acquitted from
punishment of murder. However, if he kills the assailant who committed
the violence of assault in order to save his own life, he will be protected
by the law of necessity. Nevertheless, the court felt that it could be
doubtful upon Lord Hales statement as he further stated that despite
being under necessity of food or clothes, the act of stealing goods from
other people is felony and it is a crime punishable with death by the laws
of England. The court then observed that if the extreme necessity of
hunger does not justify larceny, how could Lord Hale have said to the
doctrine that it justified murder?

Thus, the court also cited Lord Bacon who lays down a principle
that necessity carries a privilege in itself. There are 3 types of necessity,
including the necessity of conservation of life, necessity of obedience,
and necessity of the act of God or of a stranger. Lord Bacon first
explained the conservation of life. It is neither felony nor larceny if a man


steals to satisfy his hunger. Similarly, if some divers are casted away of
their boat, one of them get to some plank, or on the boat's side to keep
himself above water, and a diver in order to save his life, thrust the other
person from it, his act is neither self-defence nor misadventure, but
justifiable. Lord Bacons dictum was questioned by his equals and the
superiors. The court agreed that there is possibility of many conceivable
states of things in which it might be true. However, it is certainly not the
law in the present day to adopt the broad principle laid down by Lord
Bacon that a man can save his life by killing an innocent and unoffending
person where it is necessary for him to do so.

The court decided that the deliberate killing of this unoffending and
unresisting deceased was undoubtedly a murder, provided that the killing
can be justified by some reasonable excuse accepted by law. In addition,
the court admitted that there is no excuse, unless the killing was justified
by what has been called necessity.

Hence, the following issue is that whether the killing of Richard

Parker could be justified by necessity. Although the court recognised
that the law and morality are not the same, whereby an immoral thing
may not necessarily be illegal, the court stressed that it would cause fatal


consequence if the law is allowed to depart totally from morality. The

court held that to preserve one's life is generally speaking a duty, but it
may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it. The court went
on to explain that a war is an example in which it is a man's duty not to
live, but to die. In a case of shipwreck, the duty of imposed on a captain
to his crew, on the crew to the passengers, on soldiers to women and
children, were of moral necessity, not of the preservation, but of the
sacrifice of their lives for others. Thus, there cannot be any absolute or
unqualified necessity to preserve one's life.

The court pointed out the danger implications if absolute necessity

were to be allowed. Uncertainties such as who should be the judge of this
kind of necessity and what is the parameter in measuring the comparative
value of lives. It is clear that the standard leaves to him who is to benefit
by it to determine the necessity which will justify him in deliberately
sacrificing another's life to save his own. In this situation, the weakest,
the youngest, the most unresisting boy, Richard Parker was chosen. The
court said it is not a necessity to kill him than one of the developed man.

The court went on to say that it is quite obvious that such a

principle once conceded may cause uncontrollable and undesirable crimes


to happen. The duty of the judges is to interpret the law to their best of
their ability and to pronounce it according to their judgment. If in any
case the law appears too harsh on individuals, is it upon the discretion of
the Sovereign to exercise the prerogative of mercy which provided in the

Considering all the principles and facts, the court held that Dudley
and Stephens to be guilty of murder and they were sentenced to the
statutory death penalty. Nonetheless, they were pardoned by the Crown
and were freed after six months of imprisonment. This case is significant
in English common history which laid down the precedent that necessity
is not a defence to a charge of murder.

1469 words.


Case Judgment
The Queen v. Dudley And Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC. Retrieved
from: https://www.justis.com/data-coverage/iclr-bqb14040.aspx