What's the difference between 1st-degree murder, 2nd-degree murder and manslaughter?

Here's what you need to know about how Canadian law distinguishes between these three types of homicide.

Here's what you need to know about how Canadian law distinguishes between these 3 types of homicide

The distinctions between first and second-degree murder and manslaughter generally depend on intent. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Canadian law distinguishes between justifiable, accidental and culpable homicide. A death is deemed a culpable homicide, generally, if there is blame to be assigned.

The most common types of culpable homicide are:

1st-degree murder

Definition: A homicide that is both planned and deliberate. An example of this is a contract killing.

Some homicides are automatically considered first-degree murder:

  • The killing of an on-duty police officer or prison employee.
  • A killing committed during a hijacking, sexual assault, kidnapping, hostage taking, terrorism, intimidation, criminal harassment. Any offence committed on behalf of a criminal organization.

Sentence: First -degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years. 

2nd-degree murder

Definition: Generally, a deliberate killing that occurs without planning and does not fall under any of the categories of first degree murder.

Sentence: The minimum sentence is life in prison with no parole for 10 years, but sentences can be as long as life in prison without parole for 25 years. 


Definition: A homicide committed without intent, although there may have been an intention to cause harm. There are two broad categories of manslaughter:

Unlawful act — when a person commits a crime that unintentionally results in the death of another person. For example, someone who fires their gun carelessly in public and unintentionally kills a bystander.

Criminal negligence — when the homicide was the result of an act or a failure to act that showed wanton or reckless disregard for the lives of others. 

In some instances, a murder charge may be reduced to manslaughter if the mental faculties of the perpetrator were impaired or if the homicide was committed in the heat of passion.

Sentence: Manslaughter carries no minimum sentence, except when it is committed with a firearm, in which case the minimum sentence is four years in prison.