Actus Reus



The actus reus of a crime is the voluntary, deliberate act of the defendant. 

The physical element of a crime. It can be:

  • An act , or
  • A failure to act ( omission), or
  • A state of affairs. 

Two types of AR:

Conduct AR:  this means the physical part of the crime is the unlawful conduct itself

Result AR: here the AR is the result of the crime as seen in Marchant and Muntz (2003) 

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State of Affairs

In other crimes the actus reus can be a state of affairs for which the defendant is responsible. 

E.g. D having an offensive weapon in a public place (s.1. of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953). 

D does not have to do anything with the weapon, nor does it have to be visible.  Its enough the D has it in a public place. 

Rare instances in which the D has been convicted even though he or she did not act voluntarily .

R v Larsonneur (1933)

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Voluntary nature of actus reus

It must be a voluntary actions for the D to be liable, if it is involuntary (no control of your actions) then no liability. 

Hill v Baxter (1958) - courts described situations where a driver of a car would not be driving voluntarily, courts used the hypothetical situation of “stung by a swarm of bees”, struck on the head with a stone or had a heart attack whilst driving – such actions would not form the AR of a crime and so D could not be guilty.

Other e.g.’s where D hits another person because of a reflex action or muscle spasm.

One person pushes a second person, causing them to bump into a third person.  In this situation the act of the second person was involuntary.

The original pusher can be liable R v Mitchell (1983)

The case also shows that criminal law is concerned with fault on the part of the D. 

‘Involuntariness’ – the act needs to be voluntary if there's to be criminal liability (exception of state of affairs) .  This idea is also present when considering the lack of mens rea 

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Omissions of Actus Reus

An omission-a failure to act.

Normal rule is an omission cannot make a person guilty of an offence. 

A ‘Good Samaritan’ Law

Some other countries have this law, it makes a person responsible for helping other people in an ‘emergency situation’, even though they are complete strangers. A big issue with this is that the person can make the situation worse, or put the victim in the situation on purpose and be able to say they were 'helping them'.

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Contractual duty

R v Pittwood (1902)

A duty because of a relationship

R v Gibbins and Proctor (1918)

A duty which has been taken on voluntarily

R v Stone and Dobinson (1977)

R v Even (2009)

A duty through one’s official position

R v Dythem (1979)

A duty which arises because the defendant has set in motion a chain of events. 

R v Miller (1983) & DPP v Santa-Bermudez (2003)

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The rules of causation are applied to decide whether the defendant is guilty act cause the required consequences in the definition of a particular crime i.e.  D’s act must have caused the injury that is relevant for the particular offence. If it does not, or the act is not unlawful, there is no criminal liability. 

  •  Once the prosecution have established the actus reus they must prove the defendants conduct caused the consequences to occur
  • This means that they must establish a chain, the first link being the AR and then the actual outcome
  • Causation = did the defendant cause the crime

Proving Causation:

  • Where consequences must be proved, then the prosecution has to show that: 
  • D conduct was the factual cause of the consequences
  • D conduct was in the law the cause of that consequences, and
  • There was no intervening act which broke the chain of causation.
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Factual Causation- the D can only be guilty if the consequences would not have happened “but for “ his act. 

Factual Causation

R v Pagett (1983) 

D armed with a shotgun and cartridges, shot at police who were attempting to arrest him. D held a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant by him as a shield. The officers returned fire and the girl was killed. 

Legal Causation

The Ds actions are the substantial and operating cause of the injuries

Smith (1959) 

The defendant, a soldier, got in a fight at an army barracks and stabbed another soldier. The injured soldier was taken to the medics but was dropped twice on route. Once there the treatment given was described as palpably wrong. They failed to diagnose that his lung had been punctured. The soldier died. 

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Thin Skull Rule & Chain of Causation

D had to take his victim as he found her, meaning not just her physical condition, but also her religious belief. - R v Blaue (1975)

Chain of Causation

Direct link from the D conduct to the consequence.- Chain of causation

If a act or omission happens which is separate from the D actions may break the chain of causation. This is a intervening act.

The chain causation can be broken by:

  • A act of a third party 
  • The victims own act
  • A natural but unpredictable event. 

Act must be sufficiently independent of the D’s conduct and sufficiently serious enough. 

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Medical Treatment

Malcherek (1981) - D stabbed his wife who was taken to hospital and put on a life support machine.  She suffered two heart failures and after ten days had irretrievable brain damage.  The doctors switched off the machine.

Cheshire (1991) - D shot V in an argument in a chip shop, and V was taken to hospital where a tracheotomy was performed. Six weeks later, V suffered breathing problems because of the tracheotomy scar and died. The hospital had been negligent - perhaps even reckless - in not recognising the likely cause of V's problems and responding to them.

Jordan (1956) - The defendant stabbed the victim. The victim was taken to hospital where he was given anti-biotics after showing an allergic reaction to them. He was also given excessive amounts of intravenous liquids. He died of pneumonia 8 days after admission to hospital. At the time of death his wounds were starting to heal.

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Actions of Victim

Roberts (1971) - D in a car with V a not inexperienced 21 year old woman. They were travelling between two parties. D made advances towards V who then jumped out of the car (travelling at 20 mph)

Williams (1992) - The defendants picked up a hitchhiker on the way to Glastonbury festival. The hitchhiker jumped out of the car when it was travelling at 30 mph, hit his head and died.

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