Unit 2 - Criminal liability

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Actus Reus

Voluntary act.

The actus reus of a crime is the voluntary, deliberate act of the defendant. If the defendant's act is not voluntary, there can be no crime. Hill v Baxter (1958) - in this case, the court gave examples of situations where a driver of a car would not be driving voluntarily. These examples included, being stung by a swarm of bees and being hit on the head by a stone.

Involuntary acts and assaults.The criminal law is only concerned with fault on the part of the defendant. Where there is an absence of fault then the defendant is usually not liable.

State of Affairs cases - the D can be convicted even though he/she did not act voluntarily.

Larsonneur (1933) - D ordered to leave UK, she went to Eire, where she was brought back to the UK and arrested and charged on return. It did not matter that she had been brought back by the Irish police against her will.

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Mens Rea

Indirect intention.

Indirect intent occurs when the defendant intended the act but not the consequences.

Woollin (1998) - Defendant lost his temper and threw his 3month-old son towards his pram. The baby hit the wall and suffered head injuries from which he died. D didn't have direct intention to kill his son. The indirect intent became the mens rea for the offence. Guilty of manslaughter.

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Mens Rea


Recklessness occurs where the d knows there is a risk of the prohibited consequence but takes it anway.

Cunningham (1957) - D pulled gas meter off the wall and the gas leaked into the next-door house. Victim became ill and life endangered. Court decided that D had not intended any harm to the Victim but he had been reckless in causing the prohibited consequence.

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Duty of Care Cases

Contractual duty:- Pitwood (1902)

A duty because pf a relationahip:- Gibbins and Proctor (1918)

A voluntary duty:- Stone and dobinson (1977)

A duty through one's official position:- Dytham (1979)

A duty because the defendant created a dangerous risk then did nothing about the chain of events that followed:- Miller (1983)

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Contemporaneity Rule

In order for an offence to take place, both the actus reus and the mens rea must be present at the same time - the contemporaneity rule.

Fagan v MPC (1969) - the defendant accidentally parked his car on a policeman's foot. When the policeman asked him to move the car the defendant refused. The court found Fagan guilty of causing the injury to the policeman as leaving the car on the policeman's foot was seen as a continuing act.

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Chain of Causation

To prove the defendant committed a crime, there must be a direct link between the act of the defendant and the injury to the victim; this is known as the Chain of Causation.

The Chain of Causation can be broken by;

  • an act of a third party;
  • the victims own act;
  • a natural but unpredictable event.

In order to break the Chain of Causation, the intervening act must be both sufficiently independent of the defendant's conduct and sufficiently serious enough.

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For a consequence to be proved, the prosecution has to show that;

  • the defendant's conduct was the factual cause of that consequence, and
  • the defendant's conduct was in law, the cause of that consequence, and
  • there was no intervening act which broke the chain of causation.

Factual Cause

D can only be guilty if the consequence would not have happened 'but for' the defendant's conduct.

Pagett (1983) - D used his pregnant girlfriend as a shield while he shot at armed policemen. Police fired back and the girlfriend was killed. She would not have died 'but for' him using her as a shield.

White (1910) - D put cyanide in his mothers drink intending to kill her. She died of a heart attack before she could drink it. D did not cause her death.

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Cause in law

Defendant's conduct must be more then a 'minimal' cause, but it need not be a substantial cause - De minimis Rule.

Defendant must also take the victim as he finds him, this is know as the 'Thin Skull Rule'.

Blaue (1975) - a young woman was stabbed by D, she needed a blood transfusion to save her life, but she refused as she was a Jehovah's witness. This made the wound fatal, but D was still guilty because he has to take his victim as he found her.

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Medical Treatment

Medical treatment is unlikely to break the chain of causation unless it is so independent of D acts and 'in itself so potent in causing death' that D acts are insignificant.

  • Smith (1959)- Two soldiers had a fight and one was stabbed in the lung by the other. At the medical centre the staff gave him CPR (pressing on his chest), this made the injury worse and he died. Had the proper treatment been given, his chance of recovering would have been 75%. Despite this, the original attacker was still guilty of murder, because the stab wound was the overwhelming cause of death.
  • Cheshire (1991)- D shot victim in the thigh and the stomach. V had problems breathing and was given a tracheotomy. V died from complications of the tracheotomy which were not spotted by doctors. By the time he died, the original wounds were not life threatening. D held liable for his death.
  • Jordan (1956)- V stabbed in stomach, given antibiotic but suffered an allergic reaction to it. ! doctor stopped the use, but the next day a different doctor ordered a large dose be given. V died from allergic reaction to the drug. D was not guilty of murder.
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Victim's own act

If the defendant causes the victim to react in a foreseeable way, then any injury to the victim will have been caused by the defendant.

Roberts (1971) - girl jumped from a car in order to escape from sexual advances. The car was travelling at 20-40mph and the girl was injured. D was held to be liable for her injuries.

If the victim's reaction is unreasonable, then this may break the chain of causation.

Williams (1992) - hitch-hiker jumped from William's car and died from head injuries caused by his head hitting the road. The car was travelling at 30mph, prosecution said there had been an attempt to steal V wallet - reason for jumping. Court of Appeal said that v act had to be foreseeable and in proportion to the threat.

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Strict liability

Strict liability offences are those where D is guilty because he/she did the actus reus, and there is no need to prove the mens rea.

Larsonneur (1933) - D did not want to return to the UK, so she had no mens rea.

Shah (1999) - D owned a newsagents where they sold lottery tickets. Told staff not to sell tickets to anyone under 16years old, and put up notices in the shop stating this. Told staff if in doubt of age ask for proof. One of the staff sold lottery ticket to 13year old without asking for proof of age. D were found guilty of selling ticket to under age. Did not require mens rea - the act was enough to make them guilty, even though they had done their best to prevent this from happening.

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Which offences are strict liability?

The judges often have difficulty in deciding whether an offence is strict liability or not.

  • First rule - where an Act of Parliament includes words indicating mens rea, the offence requires mens rea and is not one of strict liability.
  • however, if an Act of Parliament makes is clear that mens rea is not required, the offence will be one of strict liabilty.
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