Actus Reus: Omissions and Causation

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Actus Reus: Omissions Essay Plan
Introduction: The actus reus is the physical
element of a crime. It can be an act, omission or a
`state of affairs'. In most cases the actus reus will
be something the defendant does but there are
situations in which a failure to act is sufficient for
the actus reus. The Latin phrase of `actus reus' is
not an accurate description of conduct which could
make someone liable for an offence. `Actus reus'
refers to a positive act but, in the law, a failure to
act can be sufficient for criminal liability. The Law
Commission, in its Draft Criminal Code (1989),
preferred the term "external element" as this is a
more accurate description. The normal rule is that
an omission cannot make a person guilty of an
offence but there are exceptions. An omission is
only sufficient for the actus reus where there is a
duty to act. There are six ways in which such duty
can exist.
A Statutory Duty Good Samaritan Law
An Act of Parliament can create liability for an Other countries have a law that places under the
omission. Examples include the offences of failing duty to help. Although there are problems in
to stop or report a road traffic accident (s170 having such a law, it can be argued that the modern
Road Traffic Act 1988) and failing to provide a view of moral responsibility is in favour of such a
specimen of breath (s6 Road Traffic Accident duty. However, there are also objectives to
1988). In fact, these offences can only be making people criminally liable for a failure to act. It
committed by failing to do so. Another example is is questionable as to whether ordinary people
s1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. should be forced to act as "rescuers". The state
This section puts parents who are legally provides well-trained and well-equipped
responsible for a child under a duty for providing professionals to deal with emergency situations.
food, shelter, clothing and medical aid for their These are paid for through taxes, so it can be
children. If a parent fails to do this then they can be argued that every tax payer is already doing their
guilty of wilful neglect. A more recent example is but ­ although this is a very weak excuse for say
the offence of allowing the death of a child or failing to save a drowning child. There is, however,
vulnerable adult under s5 of the Domestic a risk of an untrained person causing more harm
Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. This than good when attempting to rescue someone,
applies where a person in the same household fails possibly even putting their own life at risk, making
to take such steps as she or he reasonably could it harder for the emergency services. A practical
have been expected to take to protect the victim. problem to this law is deciding who would be
A Contractual Duty liable. If a child fell onto a train track and was killed
In Pittwood (1902) a railway-crossing keeper by an oncoming train in front of hundreds of
omitted to shut the gates, with the result that a people who would be prosecuted? It would be
person crossing the line was struck and killed by a impractical to prosecute such large numbers, and
train. The keeper was guilty of manslaughter. most importantly unfair to.
A Duty Because of a Special Relationship Problems of deciding when a duty exists
This is usually a parent-child relationship as a parent It is not completely certain when a duty to act will
has a duty to care for young children. A duty can exist. The normal way of deciding this is:
also exist the opposite way round, where a 1. By the judge at the trial determining
grown-up child is caring for their elderly parent. A whether there is evidence capable of
case example of parent-child duty is Gibbins and establishing a duty in law.

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Proctor (1918) where the father and his partner 2. The jury then deciding whether the duty
kept a child separate from their other children and exists.
deliberately starved her to death. They were both 3. The jury then finally deciding whether that
convicted of murder; the omission of not feeding duty has been broken.
the child was deliberate as they had the intention
of killing or causing serious harm to her.…read more

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The to do a positive act ­ but instead fail to do
House of Lords held that the defendant was only something ­ the prosecution does not have to
expected to take reasonable steps; he did not prove mens rea. This is purely for policy reasons,
have to put himself at risk.…read more

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Actus Reus: Causation Essay Plan
Introduction: Where a consequence must be
proved, then the prosecution has to show that
the defendant's conduct was the factual cause of
that consequence, it was the legal cause of that
consequence and there was no intervening act
which broke the chain of causation.…read more

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E.g. A defendant stabbed a victim but whilst the defendant's action was the cause of death so,
going to hospital the ambulance crashes and kills on that basis, should be liable.
the victim. However, this opens the question as to what
Under the "but for" test it could be argued that situations this covers. For example in Dear (1996)
the victim would not have been in the ambulance the defendant cut the victim with a Stanley knife
if it were not for the defendants actions.…read more

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The defendant was not
guilty.
In the first two cases the doctors were carrying
out treatment in an attempt to save the victim's
life. The victims would not have needed this
treatment had it not been for the defendant's
actions. In such situations the defendant is still
liable even though the medical treatment was
negligent, as pointed out in Cheshire (1991).…read more

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