Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Provocation Definition:

Conduct that would cause a reasonable person to lose self control.

Related Terms: Sudden Heat, Assault

In Wilson v. Bobbie, a tort case, Justice Frans Slater of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta accepted that provocation is conduct that would cause a reasonable person to lose self control. He went on to add that the provocation occur in close proximity to the assault and that: "provocation can of course take many forms. It might amount to no more than taunting, insults or annoyance, in which case it is neither a tort nor a crime. On the other hand, provocation may arise from an assault, a trespass, or some other conduct that is a tort or crime, or both. In this case the provocation is said to be an assault. "

Most standard English dictionaries are content to define provocation as an action or mode of conduct that excites resentment or vindictive feeling; a cause of anger. These very words were, in fact, adopted by Justice Roselinni of the Supreme Court of Washington in Re Coates.

In Varner v Stovall, Justice Jeffrey Sutton of the United States Court of Appeals remarked upon provocation, at least as to the law of Michigan, as:

"... that which causes the defendant to act out of passion rather than reason and requires that the provocation be adequate — which is to say, it must cause a reasonable person to lose control."

Arguably, one of the most useful pronouncements of law in terms of public order came when the Courts iterate that mere words or looks can never justify a defence of provocation for even the slightest of assaults.1 But then, in a more recent case, Justice Frederici of the Supreme Court of New Mexico, in Sells v State:

"We have no quarrel with the statement that words alone, however scurrilous or insulting, will not furnish adequate provocation to require submission of a voluntary manslaughter instruction. However, if there is evidence to raise the inference that by reason of actions and circumstances the defendant was sufficiently provoked ... then the jury should be given the voluntary manslaughter instruction. The fact that words were used in this case is not dispositive. It is well recognized that informational words, as distinguished from mere insulting words, may constitute adequate provocation. Accordingly, a sudden disclosure of an event (the event being recognized by the law as adequate) may be the equivalent of the event presently occurring. Thus, the substance of the informational words spoken, the meaning conveyed by those informational words, the ensuing arguments and other actions of the parties, when taken together, could amount to provocation."

Provocation, as a qualifier between murder and manslaughter, has a long history in law. Mr. Justice Michael Foster of the Court of Queen's Bench writes in his Discourses, (Foster 292), of a case tried at Old Bailey in April of 1704:

"There being an affray in the street, one Stedman, a foot-soldier, ran hastily towards the combatants. A woman seeing him run in that manner cried out: "You will not murder the man, will you?" Stedman replied: "What is that to you, you bitch." The woman thereupon gave him a box on the ear and Stedman struck her on the breast with the pommel of his sword. The woman then fled and Stedman pursuing her, (fatally) stabbed her in the back.

"Justice Holt was at first of the opinion that this was murder, a single box on the ear form a woman not being a sufficient provocation to kill in this manner.... But it afterwards appearing in the progress of the trial that the woman struck the soldier in the face with an iron patten, and drew a great deal of blood, it was holden to be no more than manslaughter."


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