Actus Reus & Causation

Detailed notes including cases on actus reus and causation

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Section A Actus Reus
1. Definition
Actus reus is a Latin term meaning guilty action. However, in law, not only an act but also an
omission can be described as the actus reus of a crime.
2. Acts
First of all an act must be voluntary. In Hill v Baxter, Lord Goddard argued: "Suppose a
driver had a stroke or an epileptic fit ... he could not be said to be driving. A blow from a
stone or an attack by a swarm of bees" would be similar. His driving would no longer be
voluntary and no offence would have been committed. This was applied in R v Whoolley
(1997), a case in which an HGV driver crashed into the back of slow moving traffic on the
M62. The court accepted that his sneezing fit rendered his actions involuntary.
There is an exception to this general rule. Sometimes people can be found guilty of a criminal
offence for being in the wrong place, even though they had no control over their actions.
These are known as "state of affairs" crimes.
R v Larsonneur (1933) CA
Mlle Larsonneur was a French subject. When her permission to remain in the UK expired,
she went to Ireland. However, she was immediately deported from Ireland and brought back
to Holyhead by the Irish police. She was handed over to the English police on arrival, and
charged under the Aliens' Order 1920 with being "an alien to whom leave to land in the United
Kingdom had been refused". The CA decided that she had been rightly convicted, even
though she had been brought to the UK by force.
Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent (1983)
Winzar had been taken into hospital on a stretcher but then discharged for being drunk. When
he was found slumped in a seat on a hospital corridor, the police were summoned to evict him.
They took him into the street outside. They then placed him in their police car and charged
him with "being found drunk on the highway" contrary to Section 12 of the Licensing Act
3. Omissions

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The general rule in English law is that there is no liability for a failure to act. For example, we
can watch a blind child walk over the edge of a cliff and are under no legal duty to try to stop
him, even if we are close enough to do so. However, there are certain recognised exceptions
to this rule.
(a) A duty arising from contract
Where a person is under a contract to act, his failure can be a criminal offence.…read more

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Where a person causes accidental damage, he is under a duty to take reasonable steps to limit
the spread of the damage.
R v Miller (1983)
While squatting in a house, Miller fell asleep with a lighted cigarette. The mattress on which
he was lying caught fire. He was woken by the fire, but, rather than attempting to put it out,
he went into another room and fell asleep. The house caught fire and was badly damaged.…read more

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White put some potassium cyanide into his mother's wine glass, intending to kill her as he
would inherit under her will. In fact, the dose was too small to succeed. Nevertheless, her
body was found soon afterwards on the settee in her living room. The full glass was next to
her, with some of the poisoned drink still in it. Medical evidence showed that she had died of
heart failure, not of cyanide poisoning.…read more

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R v Roberts (1971) CA
The victim jumped out of a car travelling over 20 mph after the driver, who was giving her a
lift to a party, told her to undress and grabbed her coat. He also told her that he had beaten up
other girls who had refused. The question before the CA was whether he was responsible for
her injuries. He was responsible as the victim's reactions were reasonable.…read more

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He won his appeal: there had been a series of medical errors, and
these had been the sole cause of his victim's death. The court said that the medical treatment
was "palpably wrong".
The judgment in Jordan will rarely be followed: it seems likely that only cases of grossly bad
medical treatment will be treated as not reasonably foreseeable. Treatment that is merely
bad or incompetent is sufficiently common to be regarded as reasonably foreseeable.…read more


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