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Cases involving the death of a person are the most serious cases prosecuted by the ODPP. The two main offences involving death are murder and manslaughter, but other offences include assault causing death (“one punch”) and other acts done with the intent to murder.

Section 18 of the Crimes Act 1900 defines murder and manslaughter. The key difference between the two offences relates to the state of mind of the accused in committing the act causing death. For murder the prosecution must prove that the act was done with reckless indifference to human life or with the intent to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm. If this test is not met, then the offence is manslaughter.

The ODPP prosecutes about 60 murder trials in the Supreme Court of New South Wales every year. Manslaughter trials and other trials involving death may be prosecuted in the District Court.


The maximum penalty for murder is imprisonment for life. There is a mandatory life sentence for the murder of a police officer killed in the execution of their duties. 

A “standard non-parole period” is a guidepost for a sentencing judge when he or she is deciding how much of the sentence must be spent in custody before an offender is eligible for release on parole. There are three standard non-parole periods prescribed for murder:

  • 25 years for the murder of a person where the victim was a police officer, emergency services worker, correctional officer, judicial officer, council law enforcement officer, health worker, teacher, community worker or other public official exercising public or community functions and the offence arose because of their occupation or voluntary work;
  • 25 years for the murder of a child; and
  • 20 years for other murders.  

The maximum penalty for manslaughter is 25 years imprisonment.

“One-punch law”

In 2014 following a campaign in the media about alcohol fuelled violence, the NSW Government introduced a new offence of Assault Occasioning Death (section 25A Crimes Act 1900), colloquially referred to as the “one punch law”.
An accused person is guilty of this offence if they assault a person by intentionally hitting the person, the assault is unlawful and the assault causes the death of the other person. The prosecution does not have to prove that the death of the person as a result of the assault was reasonably foreseeable.

The maximum penalty for this offence is 20 years, however if the accused was intoxicated at the time of the offence the maximum penalty is 25 years, and there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 8 years. 

The role of the Coroner in death cases

A police investigation into a death may result in NSW Police laying charges or the Coroner holding an inquest. 

In some cases, the Coroner may form the view that a known person may have contributed to the death, and there is sufficient evidence to refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. If the Coroner forms this view during or at the end of an inquest, the Coroner may suspend the inquest and refer the inquest papers to the DPP. The DPP will then consider whether indictable charges should be laid against that person.

The Coroner must also suspend the inquest if he or she is advised that a person has been charged with an indictable offence connected with a death. In this case the Coroner will refer the coronial file to the DPP.