Actus Reus

Article I.           Notes on Criminal Law

(a)      Actus Reus

Actus 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 is also known as the guilty act.

The act or omission must be voluntary (deliberate) on the part of the defendant. If the defendant has no control over his actions then he has not committed the Actus Reus. This can be seen in the case of Larsonneur (1933) where the defendant had been ordered to leave the UK. 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 certainly not doing this voluntarily. This case shows that she did not commit the Actus Reus however due to the principle of Strict Liability she was found guilty.

(b)     Omission

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:

§  A Contractual Duty; Case: Pitwood (1902)

§  A Duty because of a Relationship; Case: Gibbins and Proctor (1918)

§   A Duty which has been taken on voluntarily; Case: Stone and Dobinson (1977)

§  A Duty through one’s official position and; Case: Dytham (1979)

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

Pitwood (1902):

§  A railway crossing keeper failed to shut the gates of the crossing.

§  A cart was crossing when it was hit by the train and a man was killed.

§   The keeper was guilty of manslaughter as he had a contractual duty which he breached.

Gibbins and Proctor (1918):

§  A child’s father and his mistress failed to feed the child, so that it died of starvation.

§  They were guilty of murder as they had a duty because of their relationship.

Stone and Dobinson (1977):

§  Stone’s elderly sister came to live with the defendants.

§  She became ill and unable to care for herself.

§  She died.

§  The two defendants were convicted of manslaughter through failing to care for her or summon help when she became helpless.

Dytham (1979):

§  A police officer witnessed a violent attack on the victim, but took no steps to intervene or summon help.

§  Iinstead he drove away from the scene.

§  The officer was guilty of wilfully and without reasonable excuse neglecting to perform his duty.

Miller (1983):

§  A squatter accidentally started a fire.

§  When he realised this he left the room and went to sleep in another room.

§  He did not attempt to put out the fire nor summon help.

§  He was guilty of arson.

DPP v Santana-Bermudez [Modern Example] (2003):

§  Police woman, before searching the defendant’s pockets, asked him if he had any needles or other sharp objects on him.

§   This defendant said ‘no’.

§  When the police officer put her hands in his pockets she was injured by a needle which caused bleeding.

§  Court held that the defendant’s failure to tell her about the needle could amount to the Actus Reus for the purposes of an assault causing actual bodily harm.

Quick Revision Check List

When explaining the meaning of actus reus, describe:

1.       the idea of a guilty act,

2.       the idea of a voluntary act,

3.       the fact that there is no liability if there is no act,

4.       the exceptions where there is liability for an omission.

Article II.        Causation

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, 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.

(a)      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 occurred, even without the defendant’s actions, then something other than the defendant’s action caused it and the factual causation is not present.

Pagett (1983):

§  Defendant used his pregnant girlfriend as a shield while he shot at armed policemen.

§  The police fired back and the girlfriend was killed.

§  Pagett was convicted of her manslaughter.

§  She would not have died ‘but for’ him using her as a shield.

(b)     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.

                   (i)     Take the victim as you find him (thin skull rule)

It means that if the victim has something unusual or unknown about his physical or mental state which makes an injury more serious, then the defendant is liable for the more serious injury, e.g. a thin skull.

Blaue (1975):

§  Defendant stabbed a young woman.

§  She was told she needed a blood transfusion to save her life.

§  She refused as she was a Jehovah’s Witness and her religion forbade blood transfusions.

§  She died.

§  Defendant convicted of her murder.

§  The fact that she was a Jehovah’s witness made the wound fatal, but the defendant was still guilty as he had to take his victim as her found her.

                 (ii)     Novus Actus Interveniens (Intervening Act)

The chain of causation is a sequence of event caused by the defendant’s conduct (actions). In some situations something else happens after the act (or omission) by the defendant which, if it is sufficiently separate from the defendant’s actions, may break the chain of causation. This is called an intervening act.

The chain of causation can be broken by:

§  an act of a third party,

§  the victim’s own act, and

§  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.

                (iii)     Medical treatment

Medical treatment is unlikely to break the chain of causation unless it is so independent of the defendant’s act.

Smith (1959):

§  Two soldiers had a fight and one was stabbed in the lung by the other.

§  The victim was carried to a medical centre by other soldiers but was dropped on the way.

§  At the medical centre the staff gave him artificial respiration by pressing on his chest.

§  This made the injury worse and he died.

§  The poor treatment probably affected his chances of recovery by as much as 75 per cent.

§  However, the original attacker was still guilty of his murder.

Cheshire (1991):

§  The defendant shot the victim in the thigh and the stomach.

§  The victim had problems breathing and was giving a tracheotomy (i.e. a tube was inserted in his throat to help him breathe).

§  The victim died from rare complications of tracheotomy, which were not spotted by the doctors.

§  By the time he died the original wounds were no longer life-threatening.

§  The defendant was still held to be liable for his death.

                (iv)     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):

§  A girl jumped from a car in order to escape from sexual advances.

§  The car was travelling at between 20 and 40 mph and the girl was injured through jumping from the car.

§  The defendant was help to be liable for her injuries.

However, if the victim’s reaction is unreasonable, then this may break the chain of causation.

Williams (1992):

§  A hitch-hiker jumped from Williams’ car and died from head injuries caused by his head hitting the road.

§  The car was travelling at about 30 mph.

§  The prosecution alleged that there had been an attempt to steal the victim’s wallet and that was the reason for his jumping from the car.

§  The Court of Appeal said that the victim’s act had to be foreseeable and also had to be in proportion to the threat.

“within the ambit of reasonableness and no so daft as to make his own voluntary act one which amounted to a Novus actus interveniens and consequently broke the chain of causations.”