Regina v. Dudley and Stephens

CASE NAME : Regina v. Dudley and Stephens

AUTHOR : Suchandra Mukherjee


 14 Q.B.D. 273


Chief Justice Lord Coleridge


Necessity as a defense is defined under section 81 in Indian Penal Code

As per section 81 when a act is done to harm but which doesn’t have the parameter of criminal intent within it, instead that act is rather done to prevent another bigger harm , then committing of such act doesn’t constitute to an offence merely due to the fact of knowing the extent of harm or a harm is likely to be caused as a result of that act which is done in good faith.

In the present case, some people were stranded on an island without any food for weeks and they decided to sacrifice the life of a fellow from their group, who was comparatively weak and younger than the others, so that they can survive for a few more weeks. Keeping in mind the facts and circumstances a question arises that being under the pressure of hunger would the killing be considered as murder or rather necessity could be used as a defense for murder, which makes the act rather permissible.

The necessity defence should be considered as a moral provision for ‘mala in se’ offences.

The phrase “Mala se” is used to refer to certain conduct which are assessed as sinful or inherently wrong by nature, which is independent of regulations governing the conduct. The shape of such defence should be used to track our moral judgments, when it becomes morally permissible for a person to harm others.

The following points need to be present in order to use necessity as the defence:

  • With a choice given to make among two evils, the act was the lesser evil.
  • Act was done to prevent imminent harm
  • They reasonably anticipated a direct casual relationship between their conduct and the harm to be averted, and
  • There was no legal alternatives other than violating the law


There were four men namely Thomas Dudley (The captain of the ship), Edward Stephens, Ned Brooks and the Cabin boy Richard Parker who is the victim in the present case were travelling in an English ship, Mignonette, and after a huge storm had taken place in the high seas when the ship was still 1600 miles away from the Cape of Good hope, they were compelled to shift in a small yatch along with their belongings.  

They had no fresh water, except such rain water which they were storing from time to time in their oilskin capes and with no supply of food, except two 1 lb. tins of turnips, which could only be consumed for three days and else they had nothing else to subsist upon. Hence on the fourth day they caught a small turtle from the ocean so that they could subsist for a few more days, and this was the only food source that they had up to the twentieth day. The boat was drifting on the ocean, and was still more than 1000 miles away from the land. 

Without any food and all of the members getting weaker as each day passes the captain of the ship Thomas Dudley proposed to draw a lottery, and the very person whose name would be drawn would have to sacrifice his life so that the other three could survive by feeding upon his flesh and blood, to this proposal only one member Edward Stephens had agreed upon. The other member Ned Brooks refused to follow to the method and the cabin boy Richard Parker was not at all consulted. After some days when there was no hope of any ship approaching to their rescue Dudley and Stephens decided to kill Parker since he was the weakest and youngest. Due to sheer weakness the boy was lying at the bottom of the boat helplessly and unable to make any resistance when Dudley put a knife into his throat and killed him without even taking his assent and upon which they fed upon for a couple of days and on the fourth day after the act had been committed a vessel came to their rescue and pick the boat up, and after wards Dudley and Stephens were charged with murder.


  • Whether the killing of Parker was murder considering the circumstances of this case.
  • Whether necessity can be claimed as a defence for murder and can it make the act permissible.
  • Whether killing of the boy to save one’s own life, in this case, be termed as an act of self-defence.


In the judgement the killing of Parker was held absolutely to be under the provisions of murder

It was held that there is no right to delare temptation as a necessity and use it as a defence in the killing of a innocent  nor does it weakens the criminal charge that is lodged against such offence of cannibalism.

A man who wants to escape hunger when he is struck in a boat kills another man this kind of offence of murder can never be deemed to be innocent even if there is reasonable ground for believing that it is the only chance of preserving his own life

 It was therefore a duty to declare the offence as a willful murder in this case.

  • According to the judgment the temptation of hunger which existed cannot be deemed necessity according to law, there was further no such proof that could justify the killing of the boy in order to feed themselves, moreover there was no greater necessity to kill the boy rather than any of the other three men , but in this case the weakest was chose as he couldn’t resist their actions.

So the answer is definitely “No”.

  • According to law is that where a private person acts upon his own judgment in order to take the life of a being, then his act can only be justified on the ground of self-defence against the the person whose life is taken. This principle is extended to include the case

where a man kills another person to prevent him from committing some greater crime upon a third person.

But this principle has no application in this particular case of cannibalism, as the prisoners were not protecting themselves against any act of the deceased where the deceased was so exhausted and weak out of hunger that he couldn’t even resist the killing plan that was instituted against him, so self defence couldn’t be used over here.

The Court then passed death sentence upon the prisoners.

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