A2 Law OCR Topic 1: Actus reus, omissions, causation

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Law Revision Notes: Topic 1 ­ Actus reus /
Omissions / Causation
Actus Reus
The actus reus of a crime can be defined as the physical element of the crime itself this
can consist of:
An act
A failure to act (known in law as an omission)
A `state of affairs'.
The act or omission that amounts to the actus reus must be voluntary on part of the
defendant. In Hill v Baxter (1958) this was explained when the court said that a driver that
crashed his car because he was being attacked by a swarm of bees would not be held
criminally liable for his actions.
However, There are `state of affairs' cases where the defendant is convicted even though
he or she has not acted voluntarily, such as in the case of Larsonneur (1933). In this case
the defendant had been ordered to leave the UK and so left for Eire, but once there was
deported back to the UK by the Irish police, where she was then charged and convicted of
being `an alien to whom leave to land in the UK had been refused.' Usually this happens
where the crime is a strict liability offence.
For some crimes it is necessary for there to be a consequence of the actus reus, such as
in the crime of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, there must be the consequence of
actual bodily harm occurring, else there is no crime.
An omission is defined as a failure to act. In English law the general principle is that there is
no criminal liability for a failure to act. This was explained by a 19th century Judge Stephen J,
who said "A sees B drowning and is able to save him by holding out his hand. A abstains
from doing so in order that B may be drowned. A has committed no offence". However, there
are exceptions to the general principle where an omission can be sufficient for the actus reus
of an offence if a duty of care can be established.
There are six exceptions to the general principle regarding omissions in English law, these
1. A statutory duty
This is where an act of parliament can create liability for an omission, some examples
of these are failing to report a road traffic accident or failing to stop at a red light.
2. A contractual duty
An example of this was shown in the case of Pittwood (1902) whereby a railway
crossing keeper omitted to shut a gate onto the railway line when he went for his

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While he was away a pedestrian stepped onto the line and was struck and
killed by an oncoming train. Pittwood was found guilty of manslaughter, as he had a
duty of care to the pedestrian as laid out by his contract, in which one of his duties
was to shut the gate and ensure safety of the public.
3. A duty because of a relationship
An example of this occurred in the case of Gibbins and Proctor (1918).…read more

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Involuntary manslaughter and omissions
Involuntary manslaughter can be committed in two main ways: unlawful act manslaughter
and gross negligence manslaughter (Topic 7). Unlawful act manslaughter cannot be
committed by an omission, as found in the case of Lowe (1973).
Lowe (1973): The defendant was the father of a nine week old baby who died after being sick
for a while.…read more

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Khan and Khan (1998): The D's supplied heroin to a new user, who collapsed when she
took it. The D's decided to leave her, and returned later to find her dead. The CA quashed the
conviction of unlawful act manslaughter but said there could be a duty to summon medical
assistance in certain situations, and omitting to do so would make the D criminally liable.…read more

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Legal cause
This part of the test considers whether or not it was the defendant's actions that caused the
final consequence, or if something contributed to the death that was too significant for the
blame to the placed on the defendant. The current principle is that D's conduct need not be
the substantial causes but can be guilty is his conduct is more than minimal.…read more

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The victims own actions
A natural but unpredictable event
Medical treatment
This is unlikely to break a chain of causation unless it is so independent of the defendants
actions and in itself so potent in causing death that the D's acts are rendered insignificant.
The following cases outline this:
Smith (1959): In this case two soldiers were fighting when one was stabbed in the lung.…read more

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Victims own act
Testing for this is known as the daftness test, and was established in the case of Williams
(1992) where it was decided that in order for there to be a break in the chain of causation the
actions of the Victim had to be foreseeable, and in proportion to the threat.…read more

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However, there is a
problem surrounding victims refusing medical treatment, as in the case of Holland (1841)
the D deliberately cut V's finger, but not enough to kill him. However, V allowed the cut to go
untreated and get infected and died, yet D was still held criminally liable.…read more


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