October 2, 2022

Case Comment: Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC (The Human Flesh case)

This case comment is being written by Awaljot Kaur, a law student of the Department of Laws, Panjab University Chandigarh.

The world famous case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens[1] which deals with the heinous act of CANNIBALISM[2] asks the disputable question of having NECESSITY as a defense. The case brings forward the objectionable side of human nature and shows how it is stimulated when witnessed the situation near to death.

Facts of the case

The situation was that four men from an English ship, Mignonette faced a storm and got trapped in a boat thousand miles away from the land in the sea without adequate amount of food and water. After surviving on the sparse food, they were left with nothing with them to eat and survive, and the vast sea without any chances of land near them. After surviving without food and water for seven days, the captain of the ship, Thomas Dudley decided that a manipulation should be drawn to concede one of the four men, in order to save the other three as they could survive on the flesh of the conceded person, to which Edward Stephans agreed. Ned Brooks reprobated to follow the method and the cabin boy Richard Parker was not even thought of being consulted. After some days Dudley and Stephens decided to kill the boy. After killing, the three men fed on the boy’s flesh for four days after which they were rescued. Both the men were tried first at Falmouth and then were released on bail, and in November stood trial before a judge, Baron Huddleston, and jury at Exeter. There the jury, at the solicitation of the judge, found a special verdict, giving the facts and leaving it on the part of the court to decide whether the men were to be treated guilty of murder. In 1884, this procedure had long been neglected: it was specially revived for the occasion.

Decision of the Bench

By various procedural ways, it was decided to present the case before a bench of five judges constituting of the Queen’s Bench Division in London. They were found guilty of murder by the honorable bench and hence sentenced to death, but later their sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. Therefore, it was held that Necessity cannot be taken as a defense under Murder.

Qusetion answered

  • Can Necessity be claimed as a defense for the act of murder and whether it amounts the act to be permissible under law?
  • Will the act of taking the life of a weak individual just to survive, will account to self-defense.

Sypnosis

No. At the time of this case the doctrine of necessity was at extent not properly explored. Much of the prevailing judges and jury at that time spoke of necessity in terms of what today is called self-defense, i.e. taking another’s life to safeguard one’s own. Lord Bacon provided some power for the existence of the defense of necessity to lesser crimes. For instance, a hungry man is not found guilty of theft for stealing food. However, the Queen’s Bench stated that no court has ever acknowledged necessity as a DEFENSE to murder. Permitting such a defense under such heinous crime to be asserted raises pathetic questions such as how can one measure the values of lives and who would decide such things. Further, specific to the present case, that Even if it was essential to kill a person in order survive in the sea, but it is just immoral or unjust to kill the feeble and docile one. If this trend of just picking up the most lowest continues until the rescuers then everyone would tell themselves and their reasons in killing to be justified and thereby would not be found guilty of murder. Lord Coleridge held that there is never any appropriate necessity to save one’s own life. If once such a defense is allowed, there can be no idea what all atrocious crimes would be justified by the excuse of NECESSITY.

Conclusion

Practicing cannibalism, during the 19th century by sailors and seaman was quite a natural act but there were laid some conditions. There needed to be enough fairness and consent of everyone present on board was utmost necessity. This was procedure followed at that time- the right thing to do. Dudley and Stephens were not the first cannibals who had done this. Guesswork is that maybe their trial was done as they had broken the rule of conduct. After the verdict, everything experienced a change. The savage, barbarous nature of cannibalism was widely condemned and the custom of the sea was denounced as a sacrilegious appeal to god. The law laid down by this case was a good law. It strengthened the justice system by discouraging people from taking the law into their hands. Necessity can never be defense for any crime. Morality is considered more than just what is right, it is a general respect shown by one for another human being.


[1] ( 14 QBD 273 DC (1884))

[2] (The Act of Consuming The indiviual of Same Speices)