CaseSnappy Blog

Decoding Judgements: Dissecting the Enigma of R v Dudley and Stephens

21 July 2023 | CaseSnappy Team

An old, damaged grey boat washed up on brown sand.


Welcome back to "Decoding Judgements," by CaseSnappy, where we explore iconic legal verdicts, delivering lucid summaries about their implications. Today, we're discussing the harrowing case of R v Dudley and Stephens [1884] 14 QBD 273 DC, a unique case which grappled with the concepts of murder, desperation and the inviolability of human life.

A Dire Act of Desperation: Facts of the Case

The horrifying events of this case began in 1884, when four men, including Thomas Dudley and Edwin Stephens, found themselves stranded at sea for 20 days after their yacht sunk. They were without food or water for several days and, driven to the brink of desperation, Dudley and Stephens decided to kill and eat the 17-year-old cabin boy, Richard Parker, to prevent their own starvation. On being rescued, they were charged with murder.

Between Murder and Necessity: Issues in the Case

The central question revolved around whether Dudley and Stephens were guilty of murder or could resort to the defence of necessity – arguing that their act was a desperate measure to save their own lives. Meanwhile, the prosecution maintained that regardless of their predicament, they had committed murder, for which there could be no justification.

Guilt Beyond Extremity: The Decision

The court found Dudley and Stephens guilty of murder, rejecting their defence of necessity. The judges emphasized that preserving one's life did not justify taking another innocent life, underscoring the sanctity of human life and the need to uphold societal norms, even in dire circumstances.

Lord Coleridge CJ in his profound judgement stated, "It is clear that the principle leaves to him who is to profit by it to determine the necessity which will justify him in deliberately taking another's life to save his own."

CaseSnappy: Your Legal Briefcase

Through the lens of R v Dudley and Stephens, we witness the rigidity of law when it comes to preserving the sanctity of human life, no matter how severe the circumstances might be. Here at CaseSnappy, we endeavour to distil complex court cases into clear, concise summaries that benefit law students and professionals, as well as the general public.

Stay tuned to "Decoding Judgements" for more enlightening case studies. Register for free with CaseSnappy to gain access to our extensive catalog of case summaries.

Get started
By using CaseSnappy, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyse site usage and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.