Unit 2 - Concepts Of Crime

The concept of liability; AS Law Unit 2

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  • Created by: Jessica
  • Created on: 18-03-13 11:19

Actus Reus - 'guilty act'

This is the physical element of a crime. It can be an act, or a failure to act(an omission), or a state of affairs. It can also be known as the 'guilty act'.


  • Hill v Baxter (1958) - The court gave examples where a driver of a vehicle could not be said to be doing the act of driving voluntarily. These included where a driver lost control of his vehicle because he was stung by a swarm of bees, was struck on the head by a stone, or had a heart attack whilst driving.
  • Larsonneur (1933) - The defendant had been ordered to leave the United Kingdom, she decided to go to Eire, but the Irish police deported her and took her back to the UK. She did not wish to go back and was not doing so voluntarily. When she landed in the UK, she was immediately arrested and charged with 'being an alien to whom leave to land in the UK ahd been refused, was found in the UK.' It did not matter that she had been brought back to the UK by the Irish police against her will.  - The act or omission must be voluntary on the part of the defendant, if they have no control over their actions then they have not comitted the actus reus. This case shows thats she did not commit the actus reus, however due to the principle of strict liability, she was still found guilty.
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An omission is a failure to act. The normal rule of Omission cannot find a person guilty of an offence. However, there are some exceptions, such as;

1. A Contractual Duty (Pitwood 1902)

2. A Duty because of a relationship (Gibbins and Procter 1918)

3. A Duty which has been taken on voluntarily (Stone and Dobbinson 1977)

4. A Duty through one's official position (Dytham 1979)

5.A Duty which arises because the defendant has set in motion a chain of events (Miller 1983)

6. A Statuatory Duty

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Pitwood (1902)

  • A railway crossing keeper failed to shut the gates of the crossing.
  • A cart was crossing when it was hit by a train and a man was killed.
  • The keeper was guilty of manslaughter as he had a contractual duty which he breached.
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Gibbins and Procter (1918)

  • A child's father and his new wife failed to take care of the child in question, neglecting it.
  • They failed to feed the child so that it eventually died of starvation.
  • They were guilty of murder as they ahd a duty to take care of the child because of their relationship to it.
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Stone and Dobinson (1977)

  • Stone's elderly sister came to live with the defendants
  • She became very ill and was unable to care for and look after herself
  • She was left bed-bound in her own urine and feces, to which she evenyually died.
  • When she was found, she had numerous bed sores and maggots had began to eat away at her decomposing body, confirming that her brother and his partner had left her.
  • The two defendants were convicted of manslaugter through failing to care for or summon help when she became helpless.
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Dytham (1979)

  • A police officer witnessed a violent attack on the victim whilst on duty but took no steps to intervene or summon help.
  • Instead, when his shift ended minutes later, he drove away from the scene.
  • The officer was guilty of wilfully and without reasonable excuse neglecting to perform his duty.
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Miller (1983)

  • A squatter accidentally started a fire.
  • When he realised this, he made no efforts to put out the fire or summon help.
  • Instead he left the room to sleep somewhere else.
  • He was therefore found guilty of arson.
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Modern Example - DPP v Santana-Bermudez (2003)

  • A police woman, before searching the defendants pockets, asked him if he had any needles or any other sharp items on his person.
  • The defendnt said 'no'.
  • When the police officer put her hands in his pockets, she was injured by a needle
  • Because of this, there was a high risk of Hepatitis, HIV etc
  • The court held that the defendants failure to tell her about the needle could amount to the Actus Reus for the purposes of an assault causing actual bodily harm.
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This is where a consequence must be proved, and then the prosecution has to show that:

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

This is where the defendant can only be guilty if the consequence would not have happened 'but for' the defendant's conduct. If the prohibited result would still have occured, even without the defendant's actions, then something other than the defendant's action caused it and the factual causation is not present.

CASE: White (1910)

  • The defendant wanted to kill his mother
  • He put cyanide in her drink, intending to kill her
  • Before she could drink the tampered drink, she died of a heart attack.
  • So 'but for' the defendant's actions, she would still be dead, maning there is no factual causation for murder
  • However, he was still found guilty of attempted murder.
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Legal Causation

Once it is established that there is factual causation, the prosecution must also prove legal causation. This is the 'operating and substantial cause' test to find the link between the defendant's act and the criminal consequence.

CASE: Pagett (1983)

  • The defendant used his pregnant girlfriend as a human shield whilst he shot at an armed police officer.
  • The police officer fired back and the girlfriend was killed.
  • Pagett was convicted of her manslaughter even though it was the police officer who shot her because the officer's conduct was considered reasonable and just.
  • She would not have died 'but for' him using her as a shield, and the defendant would have foreseen this happening.
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Breaking the Chain of Causation

A break in the chain of causation will absolve somebody of liability, these are;

1. The victim's own act.

2. A third party intervention.

3. A natural unforseeable event.

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1. The Victim's Own Act

If the response is reasonable, it does NOT break the chain of causation

R v Roberts - A girl got a lift back from a party, whilst driving, the driver of the car made sexual advances towards the girl, the girl jumped out of the car whilst it was travelling 30mph on a quiet residential street, she sustained minor cuts and bruises which amounted to ABH. The court held that this was an acceptable reaction/response and so the chain was not broken.

R v Williams - A hitchiker accepted a ride, once in the car, the other passengers proceeded to mug him, the man jumped out of the car, which was going 70 mph on the motorway, he consequentially died.

This response was considered unreasonable so it breaks the chain of causation, leaving the defendants not liable.

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2. Third Party Intervention

Generally, medical intervention will not break the chain, unless it is considered 'palpably wrong'.

R v Smith - A soldier was badly wounded, whilst being transported to the hospital, he was dropped twice, once he was at the hospital, he was treated fairly badly. It was however held that the stab wound was the operating and substantial cause of death so the chain was not broken.

R v Jordan - The victim had been stabbed, he was then taken to hospital where he was given anti-biotics after showing an alergic reaction to them. He was also given excessive amounts of intravenous liquids. Because of this, he died of pneumonia 8 days after his initial admission to hospital. At the time of his death, his stab wounds were starting to heal.

It was held that the victim died of his 'palpably wrong' medical treatment, not his initial stab wound, so the defendant was not held liable for his death as the chain was broken. (novus actus interveniens)

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3. A Natural Unforseen Event

The example used here is an ambulance is taking a patient to hospital, when a tree is struck by lightening, causing the tree to fall on the ambulance, if the patient inside dies, the defendant is not liable as the chain is broken.

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Thin Skull Rule

This is the principle of taking your victim as you find them.

R v Blaue (1975)

  • The defendant stabbed a young woman
  • She was told she needed a blood transfusion to save her life
  • She refused the blood transfusion as she was a Jehovah's Witness, and her religion forbade blood transfusions.
  • Because of this she died
  • The defendant was convicted of her murder
  • The fact that she was a Jehovah's Witness made the wound fatal, but the defendant was still guilty of her murder as he had to take his victim as he found her.
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Mens Rea

Mens Rea in criminal law is concerned with the state of mind of the defendant, most true crimes will require proof of Mens Rea. (Where Mens Rea is not required, the offence is one of strict liability.)

There are three main levels of Mens Rea;

a. Direct Intent

b. Oblique Intent

c. Recklessness

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a. Direct Intent

Direct intent can be said to exist where the defendant embarks on a course of conduct to bring about a result which in fact occurs. It is the desire to bring about a specific consequence...

This can be illustrated in the case of Mohan;

  • Defendant was driving his car and responded to a police officer's signal to stop.
  • The defendant slowed down but then accelerated towards the police officer.
  • The police officer moved out of the way and the defendant drove away.
  • The defendant was charged with the attempt to cause bodily harm by driving at the Police Constable.
  • The jury were directed that the prosecution had to prove that the defendant realised that such driving would be likely to cause bodily harm.
  • It was held that intent is an essential element of an attempt and is the only mens rea of attempts.
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b. Oblique Intent

Oblique Intent is said to exist when the defendant embarks on a course of conduct to bring about a desired result, knowing that the consequence of his actions will also bring about another result that is 'virtually certain.'

EXAMPLE: The defendant intends to kill his wife, he knows thats she is going to be on a certain aeroplane at a certain time, so he places a bomb on the plane. He knows that his actions will result in the death of the other passengers and the crew of the aeroplane even though that may not be part of his desire in carrying out the action. In this situation, the defendant is no less culpable in killing the passengers and crew than in killing his wife, as he knows the deaths will happen as a result of his actions.

CASE: R v Woolin:

  • The defendant threw his baby across the room in order to get it to stop crying.
  • The baby missed the cot and instead hit the wall, causing the baby to die.
  • The defendant had not intended to kill the baby, only to stop it from crying.

(NOTE: oblique intent can only be used in murder or manslaughter.)

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c. Recklessness

Generaly, being reckless refers to the taking of an unjustified risk. Recklessness is the lower level of mens rea and tells us that the defendant must have foreseen the risk of harm from their actions and goes ahead anyway. In the context of criminal damage, originally the leading case in this area of R v Cunningham, held that a subjective test applied to determine recklessness.

R v Cunningham gave rise to Cunningham Reckelssness which asks; "did the defendant foresee the harm that in fact occured or might occur from his actions, but nevertheless continued regardless of the risk?"

CASE: R v Cunningham:

  • The appellant ripped a gas metre from the wall in order to steal the money in the metre.
  • This caused gas to escape and seep through the small cracks in the wall, into the neighbouring property where his future mother-in-law was sleeping.
  • She was poisoned as a result of this.
  • The court held that he was reckless as to whether harm was done, and was found guilty.
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Coincidence (The Contemporineity Rule)

The contemporineity is the meeting point between the actus reus and the mens rea. They normally happen at the same time. However, sometimes, there are cases in which they happen at different times, so the defendants may be absolved of their liability. So the courts have solved the problem in two ways;

1. The Continuing Act

2. The Transactional Act

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1. The Continuing Act

This is where the Actus Reus is continuing until the harm is removed. As long as the Mens Rea is formed at some point during the course of the offence, the defendant is still liable.

CASE: FAGAN v MPC (1969):

  • Fagan accidentally drove onto a policeman's foot, when he realsied this, he swore at the policeman and told him he could stay there.
  • He was found liable for the harm even though the Mens Rea and the Actus Reus did not happen at the same time.
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2. the Transactional Act

In this case, the courts stretch out the Mens Rea in order to meet the Actus Reus. This is useful when there have been a series of events and the Mens Rea has been formed at some point, but not at the time in which the Actus Reus was.


  • The defendants had planned to kill a man and then make it look like an accident.
  • They took him to a hut and beat him over the head several times.
  • Believing that he was dead, they then took his body to a cliff top and threw it off.
  • Medical evidence later showed that the deceased actually died from the exposure of being left at the bottom of the cliff and not from the head injuries.
  • The four appelants appealed against their convictions of murder on the grounds that the actus reus and the mens rea of the crime did not coincide. That is to say that when they formed the intention to kill, there was no actus reus as the man was still alive. When they threw him off the cliff, there was no mens rea as they can't intend to kill someone who they believed was already dead.
  • The court said that the death was one of a series of acts, so the actus reus was able to be stretched backwards. (Also seen in R v Church)
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Transferred Malice

Transferred Malice is where your intent to harm (mens rea) is transferred from the intended victim, to the un-intended victim.

R v Mitchell - The defendant pushed another man in a post-office queue, as a result of this, the intended victim fell on an ederly woman infront of him, who later died from her injuries. This is indirect harm as it involves more than one victim.

R v Latimer - The defendant attempted to hit the intended victim with his belt, however in trying to do this, he actually harmed the un-intended victim with the backlash. This is a direct harm as it only involves one victim.

R v Pembleton - The defendant threw a stone at the victim, however it hit a window of a nearby property instead. In this case, the mens rea cannot be transferred between different types of offences. (Intended a non-fatal offence, not criminal damage.)

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