Criminal Elements/Concepts of Liability


Actus Reus

Definition - Actus reus is Latin for the 'guilty act', and is all of the physical elements of an offence, for instance throwing the punch. Each crime has its own actus reus and each one is different. 

Voluntary - The act must be done voluntary, meaning the defendant must be in control of their actions. In Hill v Baxter, Lord Denning said that an act wouldn't be voluntary if a driver was attacked by a swarm of bees, as he would have no control over his actions. He would be acquitted with the defence of automatism.

Involuntary - In Bratty, an involuntary act was described as 'an act done by the muscles without control of the mind, a reflex, a spasm or convulsion'.

State of Affairs Crimes - State of affairs crimes are an exception to this rule. They occur when the defendant is liable because they were in a prohibited situation. In other words; they were found somewhere they shouldn't have been, even if it was involuntary. This is illustrated in R v Winzar, where the defendant was arrested for being drunk on a highway but didn't want to be there.

Omissions - Sometimes the defendant can be guilty for not acting when there is a legal duty to do so, this is called an omission. Although we have no Good Samaritan law, Parliament has imposed certain duties to act. An example of a statutory duty is the duty to stop at the scene of an accident under the Road Traffic Act 1988. An example of a common law would be a duty under one's contract, as seen in R v Pitwood.


Definition - In English law the actus reus usually requires a positive action by the defendant, but sometimes there can be a duty to act and the defendant can be liable because of a failure to act; an omission. We have no Good Samaritan law but Parliament and the courts have imposed certain duties to act where the defendant can be liable for an omission.

Statutory Duties - Statutory duties include those found in the Childrens Act for parents and the Road Traffic Act, such as the duty to stop at the scene of an accident.

Common Law Duties - There are 4 main common law (judge made) duties;

  • Contractual - Seen in R v Pitwood, where the defendant was found guilty of manslaughter, because he failed to fulfil his contractual duty of  closing the gates, as specified in his contract of employment.
  • Voluntary Acceptance of Responsibilty - Seen in Stone v Dobinson, where the defendants were guilty of a failure to act because they had failed to fulfil their voluntarily accepted responsibility of caring for their niece, who died.
  • Public Duty - Seen in R v Dytham, where a policeman had a duty to act because of his official position - he was guilty because he failed to intervene in a fight.
  • Danger Created by the Defendant - Seen in…


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