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"No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily: and an involuntary act in this context some people nowadays
prefer to speak of it as `automatism' means an act which is done by the muscles without any control by the mind,
such as a spasm, a reflex action or a convulsion; or an act done by a person who is not conscious of what he is doing,
such as an act done whilst suffering from a concussion or whilst sleepwalking."
Bratty v. Attorney-General for Northern Ireland (1963), Lord Denning
As it is seen above, English law allows a defence of automatism to be used if the act is not voluntary. Lord Denning
summarised this in his obiter dicta statements in Bratty (1963).
D strangled a girl with her stocking. He claimed at the time he was suffering from psychomotor epilepsy.
D is entitled to raise the defence of automatism if the jury rejects a defence of insanity.
It would be insufficient for D to simply say `I had a blackout', because that was one of the first refuges of a
guilty conscience and a popular excuse.'
I.e. Evidence from D himself will rarely be sufficient.
Lord Denning MR
Two Types of Automatism
· Insane Automatism, where the cause of the automatism is a disease of the mind, an internal one within the
M'Naughten Rules. In such a case the defence is insanity and the verdict not guilty by reason of insanity.
· Non-Insane Automatism, where the cause is an external one. Where such a defence succeeds, it is a
complete defence and D is not guilty.
This is a defence because the actus reus, which although is done by the defendant, is not done voluntarily. It can be
seen therefore, that when the actus reus does not have to be voluntary (i.e. in an absolute liability situation) that the
defence would be unavailable.
Hill v. Baxter (1958)
D claimed to have been overcome by a sudden illness and crashed his car. D's plea of automatism was
rejected because he had been driving and had been in control of the car.
Some credible evidence must support D's claim; but thereafter it is for the prosecution to disprove the
`A person should not be made liable at the criminal law who, through no fault of his own, becomes
unconscious when driving, as, for example, a person who has been struck by a stone or overcome by
sudden illness, or when the car as been put temporarily out of his control owing to his being attacked by a
swarm of bees.'
Kay v. Butterworth (1945)
A blow to the head, an attack by a swarm of bees, sneezing, hypnotism and the effect of a drug would all
be considered acceptable causes for automatism.
D admitted to driving his HGV very close to the car in front of him on the M62. He alleged that he had a
sneezing attack, lost control and crashed into the car(s) in front of.
A sneezing attack comes under the defence of automatism.
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D, a nurse, assaulted a patient. He was a diabetic, had taken insulin and not eaten sufficient food. He
drank whisky and run and claimed the he could not remember the assault.
The drug was an external cause
Automatism caused by external pressures such as sleep walking does not constitute non-insane automatism, but
may be insane automatism (insanity).
D wounded a female neighbour friend whilst sleepwalking.…read more
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Where the defendant does not know that his actions are likely to lead to a self-induced automotive state in
which he may commit an offence, he has not been reckless and can use the defence of automatism.
D took a Vallium tablet to calm himself when the woman whose tablets they were told him they would do
no harm to him, told him to leave their flat. D set fire to the wardrobe.…read more