Res Ipsa Loquitur


The principle of res ipsa loquitur applies in cases of negligence and, literally translated, means “the thing speaks for itself”.

Ordinarily, in civil law, the burden of proof rests with the claimant to prove his/her case. Ordinarily he must prove that, on the balance of probabilities, the defendant is liable for the negligence. The same principle of burden of proof operates in criminal cases too: the Crown must prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged.

The principle of res ipsa loquitur reverses the burden of proof in cases of negligence. It lifts the burden of proof from the claimant’s shoulders, and places it firmly onto the shoulders of the defendant: now the defendant must prove, on the balance of probabilities, that he is not liable for the negligence.

This has a very significant impact on the case. Ordinarily, if the claimant cannot prove his case then he fails to win compensation. Once res ipsa loquitur is engaged, the court automatically takes the position that the defendant is liable, and the defendant must provide evidence or argumentation to prove that he is not liable. This makes it a lot easier for claimants to win their case, because it rigs the deck in their favour.


TaskWhy do you think that the law ordinarily forces the claimant to prove his case, rather than the other way around?

Tip: Think about the concept of freedom and liberty.







When will res ipsa loquitur apply?

There are three conditions for the engagement of res ipsa loquitur:

  1. The thing that caused the harm was wholly under the control of the defendant.
  2. The accident that caused the damage complained of would not have happened unless someone had been negligent.
  3. There is no other explanation of the injury caused to the claimant.

It is important to remember that all three conditions must be present before the court can utilise the principle of res ipsa loquitur and transfer the burden of proof to the defendant.

The best way to illustrate the three conditions is by a quick examination of some key cases.

Scott v London and St Catherine Docks

In this case, the claimant was walking along the dock when he was hit on the head by a sack of sugar which had fallen from an overhead crane. The sack of sugar caused him some harm, and he decided to sue the crane company for negligence.

Run through the three conditions for negligence: duty of care, breach of duty, and damage. Do you think the claimant had a good case against the crane company?

The courts engaged the principle of res ipsa loquitur and transferred the burden of proof to the defendant crane company. The claimant was no longer required to prove his case. Run through the three conditions for res ipsa loquitur and see if you can figure out why.

First of all, the thing that caused the harm (the sack of sugar) was wholly under the control of the defendant crane company. Nobody else had access to the sack of sugar.

Second, sacks of sugar do not simply fall off cranes. Not, that is, unless someone has been negligent.

Third, there is no other explanation for how the claimant received his injuries.

Since all three requirements of res ipsa loquitur were present in this case, the defendant was required to prove that he was not liable. The burden of proof was transferred.

Gee v Metropolitan Railway
Thomas_Tank_Engine_1In this case, the claimant was injured when he fell out of a door on the defendant’s underground train immediately after leaving the station. The doors were controlled by the driver.

Again, the courts engaged the principle of res ipsa loquitur and transferred the burden of proof to the defendant. The claimant was no longer required to prove his case. Run through the three conditions for res ipsa loquitur and see if you can figure out why.

First of all, the thing that caused the harm (the prematurely opened carriage door) was wholly under the control of the driver. Nobody else had access to the switch.

Second, doors are not conscious beings and do not open of their own accord. Somebody must have negligently pressed the “open” button at the wrong moment.

Third, there is no other explanation for the injury caused to the claimant.

Mahon v Osbourne

15880448_surgeon_394752cIn this case, a surgeon left a swab inside a patient’s body during an operation. The body was sewn up, and the swab remained.

Again, the courts engaged the principle of res ipsa loquitur and transferred the burden of proof to the defendant. The claimant was no longer required to prove his case. Run through the three conditions for res ipsa loquitur and see if you can figure out why.

First of all, the thing that caused the harm was wholly under the control of the surgeon.

Second, medical swabs do not spontaneously appear inside human bodies. The surgeon must have been negligent, otherwise the swab would not be there.

Third, there is no other explanation for the injury caused to the claimant.

AQA Exams Advice

Take a look at a past exam question on res ipsa loquitur: June 2010, Question 13 is a good place to start.

Now take a look at the mark scheme for that question, which looks like this:

Mark Scheme







Note that the mark scheme requires a “case” in support. Not cases, plural, but “case”, singular. The question is worth five marks, which means that you should aim to spend five minutes on your answer. This should leave you with enough time to write about one case, using the facts to illustrate the principle of res ipsa loquitur. So, pick your favourite case from the selection above and learn it!



By Thomas Phillips Posted in Tort Law

Common Assault and Battery


Ask the ordinary woman on the street what she understands by the word “assault” and you will probably find an array of misconceptions. The word assault is generally taken to denote any kind of physical harm inflicted on one person by another: from minor bruising to broken bones. As law students, we will come to know better; we will come to realise that non-fatal offences against the person are too complex and wide-ranging to be lumped together under one simple heading. By the time you have finished reading this article, you should be able to explain the key differences between assault and battery.

The Big Picture

Non-fatal offences against the person is a broad category of criminal offences, covering all kinds of harm done to a human being short of murder (which, of course, would be classified as a fatal offence against the person). The category includes very minor harm (common battery), reasonably serious harm (actual bodily harm, or ABH), and very serious harm (grievous bodily harm, or GBH). It also includes common assault which, as we shall soon discover, involves no physical harm whatsoever.

For the purposes of this article, we will narrow our discussion to just two non-fatal offences: common assault and common battery. Consider the diagram below:

Flow Chart


Assault is a common law offence, but its existence is explicitly recognised by statute. Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 states the following:

Common assault and battery shall be summary offences and a person guilty of either of them shall be liable to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both.

It is vital to note that section 39 does not provide the definitions of common assault and battery; it does not lay-out the actus reus and mens rea requirements of either offence. The only purpose of section 39 is to recognise that these common law offences exist, and to set out the sentencing parameters.

The definitions of both assault and battery, therefore, come from case law. In Collins v Wilcock (1984) Goff LJ provided the standard definitions:

The law draws a distinction…between an assault and a battery. An assault is an act which causes another person to apprehend the infliction of immediate, unlawful force on his person; a battery is the actual infliction of unlawful force on another person.

The actus reus of assault

There are two actus reus requirements for assault:

  1. There must be some kind of act;
  2. Which causes the victim to apprehend the infliction of immediate, unlawful force.

Essentially, what the prosecution will have to prove beyond reasonable doubt is that D performed some kind of act which caused V to be afraid that he was about to be subjected to force.

In Lodgon v DPP (1976), D opened a drawer in his office to reveal what he claimed to be a loaded gun. D showed the weapon to V, who feared that D was about to fire the gun at him. Even though the gun was, in fact, a fake; the court held that D’s actions were sufficient to amount to an assault.

The requirement that there be “some kind of act” has been interpreted very broadly. In R v Ireland (1997) D made silent telephone calls to a number of women. He did not speak, he did not make a sound, he only breathed down the receiver. The House of Lords decided that this was enough to amount to an assault:

The victim is assailed by uncertainty about his intentions. Fear may dominate her emotions, and it may be the fear that the caller’s arrival at her door may be imminent. She may fear the possibility of immediate personal violence.

The second requirement – that the victim apprehends immediate unlawful force – excludes situations where it is obvious that the defendant either cannot or will not use force. In R v Lamb (1967) D pointed a gun at someone who knew that it was unloaded. Since D could not possibly have fired a bullet into V, there was no assault.

Fear of immediate force is necessary, although this requirement is not read literally. Immediate, for our purposes, does not mean instantaneous, but imminent.

In Smith v Chief Superintendent of Woking Police Station (1983) D trespassed onto V’s garden and peered through her window. It was roughly 11pm and V was in her nightclothes. As one would expect, the sight of an unknown stranger peering through her window caused her to fear the imminent application of unlawful force. She was afraid that D would break into her property and cause her some harm.

Although the defendant in Smith did not fear that force was going to be used against her at the precise moment when she spotted the defendant, it was sufficient for an assault conviction that she feared the application of force in the very near future.

The actus reus of battery

The actus reus of battery is the infliction of some kind of unlawful force on another person.

In Collins v Wilcock (1984) a police officer unlawfully took hold of a woman’s arm to stop her from walking away: since the officer was not attempting to arrest the victim, he had no right to physically restrain her. The High Court decided that the police officer had committed a battery:

It has long been established that any touching of another person, however slight, may amount to battery…every man’s person being sacred, and no other person having a right to meddle with it, in any the slightest manner.

In R v Thomas (1985) D touched the bottom of a woman’s skirt and rubbed it. The Court of Appeal decided that:

There could be no dispute that if you touch a person’s clothes while he is wearing them that is equivalent to touching him.

Those two cases: Collins and Thomas make it perfectly clear that a battery is committed even where the touching is only very minor; and the relatively minor nature of the offence is reflected in the maximum penalty on conviction: six months imprisonment.

The issue of consent

What about those cases where V consents to D’s touching? For example, if Laura consents to Jennifer giving her a hug, is this conduct classified as battery?

In R v Slingsby (1995) D and V engaged in “vigorous” consensual sexual intercourse, during the course of which D’s signet ring caused injury to the victim. This injury led to blood poisoning, which led to the victim’s death. The victim’s consent meant that D was not guilty of battery or any other form of assault. Remember, the force must be unlawful and if two mature adults consent to sexual intercourse, however “vigorous”, there can be no battery.

There are also situations in which the courts will imply consent. For example, if Deon is visiting central London and needs to ride the Tube during rush hour, it is very likely that he will be crammed into an overheating carriage in direct contact with other commuters. Is everybody on the train going to be guilty of battery because they have failed to hold the following conversation:

I say, Old Boy, it’s rather cramped in this carriage. Do you mind if I press myself against you?

Of course, it would be completely unrealistic to expect every passenger to obtain explicit consent from every other passenger.

This issue was tackled in Collins v Wilcock (1984) where it was held that the ordinary “jostlings” of everyday life were not battery:

Although we are all entitled to protection from physical molestation, we live in a crowded world in which people must be considered as taking on themselves some risk of injury (where it occurs) from the acts of others which are not in themselves unlawful.

So most of the everyday contact between humans: a friendly handshake, paternal pat on the back, or an accidental collision in a busy shopping mall, are not examples of battery. The courts imply that we all consent to such contact in our day-to-day lives.

Indirect battery

Is it possible for a battery to be committed when D never makes any physical contact with V? What if D sets a booby trap for V; stretches a thin line of string across a corridor and waits for V to walk into it and trip over?

In R v Martin (1881) D placed an iron bar across the doorway of a theatre and then switched off the lights. In the ensuing panic, several members of the audience ran into the iron bar and obtained injuries. The court held that D had committed a battery.

Similarly, in DPP v K (1990) a fifteen year-old schoolboy stole some sulfuric acid from his science lesson and hid it in a hand drier. He then returned to his class, intending to return to the drier at a later time and remove the acid. Before he was able to do so, an unfortunate victim used the hand drier and was sprayed by the acid. The Magistrates Court acquitted the boy and his case was appealed by the prosection. In the High Court, Parker LJ said:

If a man laid a trap for another into which he fell after an interval, the man who laid the trap would during the interval be guilty of an attempt to assault, and of an actual assault as soon as the man fell in.

Both cases make it clear that D can be found guilty of battery even though D has no physical contact with his victim.

Mens rea of assault and battery

The mens rea for assault is either:

  1. An intention to cause another to fear immediate unlawful personal violence, or
  2. Recklessness as to whether such fear is caused.

The mens rea for battery is either:

  1. An intention to apply unlawful physical force to another, or
  2. Recklessness as to whether unlawful force is applied.

In simple terms, intention or recklessness is sufficient for both offences.


  • Common assault requires the threat of immediate unlawful force.
  • Common battery requires the application of unlawful force.
  • Both offences require either intention or recklessness.
  • There is no common battery where consent is present: whether express or implied.
  • Battery can be committed indirectly, especially where D sets some form of booby trap.

How an Idea Becomes a Law


The principal element of the UK’s constitution is that Parliament is sovereign. The will of Parliament, expressed through Acts of Parliament, is unconstrained by any authority on Earth. It can make or unmake any law whatsoever. Nothing and nobody can set-aside, override, or otherwise ignore the will of Parliament.

Some say that the European Union has changed all this, that Parliament is no longer sovereign, that the European Union is the new supreme institution. European laws, they say, can override an Act of Parliament; fling it into the flames; bury it under a pile of European Directives. But theirs is a limited view of parliamentary sovereignty. European Union law only has supremacy over Acts of Parliament because Parliament continues to permit it. There is no constitutional principle to prevent Parliament from passing a new Act to leave the European Union, and there is nothing to prevent Parliament from expressly overriding EU law. In his recent Hamlyn Lecture (2013) Lord Justice Laws described it in the following way:

…The supremacy which European law possesses in this jurisdiction is given by
the United Kingdom Parliament, the reach of European law is ultimately a function of Parliament’s will.

If Parliament wants to make a new law contrary to an EU treaty obligation, all it has to do is begin the Act with the following sentence (or something similar):

The provisions contained in the following Act are intended to take precedence over any contrary provision of European Union law.

Simple as that…

Given the supreme importance attached to Acts of Parliament, it is necessary to gain an understanding of parliamentary procedure. How does an idea become an Act of Parliament? What kind of hoops does the idea have to jump through before it receives the Queen’s signature and binds us all?

What is Parliament?

Parliament is the supreme legislative authority in the United Kingdom (although Wales and Scotland have their own legislative bodies with devolved powers). In general, the government makes legislative proposals, the proposals are considered by Parliament and made into law, and the law is applied by the judiciary.

In simple terms, Parliament makes new laws; and it consists of three separate bodies:

The institutions of Parliament

The institutions of Parliament

The House of Commons

The House of Commons contains 650 green seats, each reserved for an individual Member of Parliament (MP). The MPs are directly elected every five years at a general election.

The UK elects its MPs via the first past the post system. When you amble to the polling booth every five years, you are voting for a particular MP to represent your constituency. For example, if you live in St Helens North, all of the votes will be counted in St Helens North and whichever MP has the most votes will win a seat in the House of Commons. That MP will, in theory, represent the interests of his constituents in St Helens North when it comes to Parliamentary debates and votes. The same procedure occurs throughout the UK until all 650 seats are filled by MPs from all over the land.

The vast majority of MPs represent a particular political party: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, DUP etc. Some MPs are independent, with no party affiliation; or they are members of small and relatively unheard-of parties. For example, the MP for Bradford West represents the Respect Party.

After the election, the total number of seats won by each party are counted. If one party manages to take control of 326 or more seats, then it has overall control of the House of Commons. All of the other parties combined will only have 324 seats.

The above scenario is called a majority government. Since that party has overall control over the House of Commons, it can appoint a Prime Minister from within its ranks, form a government, and usually get its own way when it comes to voting.

If no single party manages to gain 326 seats, then we have what’s called a hung parliament. No single party can command a majority in the House of Commons. In this situation, there are two main options:

  1. Minority government: The party with the largest number of seats forms a government and appoints a Prime Minister. But they are going to have a big problem: how do they get Parliament to vote their ideas into law? If the other parties combine to vote “no”, then their law will not pass. The government is weak and vulnerable.
  2. Coalition government: Two or more parties combine to form a government. Positions in government are shared between both parties, and they work together to ensure their legislative proposals are passed. At present (2013) the UK is governed by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
A hung parliament - no single party can command a majority.

A hung parliament – no single party can command a majority.

In theory, the House of Commons represents the will of the common-folk: ordinary people like you and me. The House of Lords, on the other hand…

The House of Lords

The House of Lords is completely unelected. Not one single member of the UK gets to have a say in the membership of the House of Lords: not me, not you, and not your Grandfather.

The House of Lords

Members of the House of Lords are called peers, and they are appointed by the Queen after a personal recommendation from the Prime Minister. Most peers are lifelong members of the House of Lords, but 92 of them are hereditary peers: when they die their right to sit in the House of Lords passes automatically to their children, then from their children to their grandchildren, and then from their grandchildren to their great-grandchildren.

The constitution of the UK contains no formal separation of Church and State: the Queen, as well as being the head of state, is also the head of the Church of England (that’s what you get when you found a state on the family values of Henry VIII). As such, a certain number of Bishops are automatically entitled to sit in the House of Lords.

Once a proposed law has been voted through by the House of Commons, it passes to the House of Lords. It follows that these unelected, unaccountable, and possibly unworthy ladies and gentlemen have a major say in the laws that bind us all…

The Queen

The Queen’s influence in Parliament is largely a formality, a ceremonial display of our long and lustrous history. These days, far from being the divinely ordained, omnipotent, and capricious beast of monarchs past, Queen Elizabeth’s role is reduced to that of a rubber stamp.

She is expected to set-out the government’s legislative agenda at the beginning of each new Parliamentary year. The government of the day provides her with a speech, and she sits on her throne and reads it out.

She also has the final say on whether or not a proposed law will become a fully fledged Act of Parliament. Without her signature – the Royal Assent – there can be no Act of Parliament. But again, her seemingly strong power is in fact a mere historic hangover from bygone days when the monarch actually had a say. In reality, there is a constitutional convention that the Queen will not refuse to sign any proposed Act of Parliament.

How Does an Idea Become a Law?

A draft law is called a Bill (example Bill here), and an idea becomes a Bill after the government has consulted the public about its proposals.

The first stage is to produce a Green Paper. These papers are consultation documents and invite interested parties to make submissions about the proposed law. The government will take these views into account and, if necessary, make some changes to the original proposals.

The next step is to produce a White Paper. White Papers detail the final legislative proposals and explain the rationale behind the proposed new law. A Bill is then produced, ready to be placed before Parliament.

From an idea to a Bill

From an idea to a Bill

There are several stages involved before the Bill receives the Royal Assent and becomes an Act of Parliament. Some of these are simple formalities; others involve protracted debating and amending. Consider the diagram below:

Process of a Bill through Parliament

From a Bill to an Act of Parliament

The first reading is a mere formality. The MP who is sponsoring the Bill will stand up in Parliament and briefly outline the Bill, then the Speaker of the House will take a vote on whether or not the House wishes to consider the Bill in greater detail.

Those MPs who wish to proceed with the Bill will shout “aye,” those who do not will shout “no!” If it is unclear which side has won the shouting contest, the Speaker will call for a formal vote to be taken: a process which is known as division.

If the Bill passes the first reading then it moves on to the second reading. This is where the bulk of the debating happens. MPs will hold a long debate about the principles underlying the Bill, the meaning of the words used in the Bill, and the overall worth of value of the Bill. Once the debate had concluded, the Speaker will take a vote on whether or not to allow the Bill to proceed to the committee stage.

During the committee stage a small group of MPs (usually between 16-50 in total) studies the details of the Bill: line by line, section by section, and clause by clause. These MPs are selected on the basis of their expertise in the particular field or area covered by the Bill. Having studied the Bill, the committee might suggest some amendments (changes), which will then be passed back to the House for further debate.

At the report stage the House will debate any amendments proposed by the committee during the committee stage. They can either choose to accept the amendments or reject them. Again, the Speaker of the House will call a vote. If the Bill passes this stage then it passes through to the third reading.

The third reading is another formality. It is the stage at which the Bill receives a final “yes” or “no” vote from the House. But since the Bill has already passed the report stage, it is very unlikely that the Bill will be defeated at this point.

Once a Bill has passed all of the above stages in the House of Commons, it is transferred to the House of Lords where it must undergo the same process. Ordinarily, a Bill must be passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords before it can receive the Royal Assent; but there are exceptions…

The Parliament Acts

The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 allow the House of Commons to produce a new Act of Parliament absent the consent of the House of Lords. The combined effect of these Acts is to render the House of Lords nothing more than a stumbling block: they can delay an Act by up to one year, but they cannot entirely prevent it from becoming an Act.

The first Parliament Act of 1911 was a response to the recalcitrance of the House of Lords. The Liberal government of the day wanted to introduce sweeping liberal reforms, essentially laying the foundations for the modern welfare state. But the House of Lords felt threatened, and did everything within their power to scupper Lloyd George’s proposals, including a refusal to pass the government’s budget.

The eventual response was the passing of the Parliament Act 1911, which allowed the House of Lords to block the progress of Bills by up to two years, but took away their power to entirely abort the legislative process.

The Parliament Act of 1949 was born out of similar circumstances. This time, they were at war with the Labour government after the Second World War. The Labour government wanted to initiate a process of nationalisation, as well as implementing further welfare reforms. The House of Lords said no; the House of Commons passed another Parliament Act to make them even more helpless. This time, they could only delay the progress of a Bill by up to one year.

The interesting part of the story is that the Parliament Act 1949 was made law via the procedure laid down in the Parliament Act 1911. In other words, the House of Lords did not get to have a say in the 1949 legislation.

The Parliament Acts are potent weapons which the House of Commons can unsheathe when the House of Lords tries to get in the way, but in reality the weapon spends most of its time safely within its scabbard. The House of Lords tends to recognise and respect the fact that Bills passed by the House of Commons come with a democratic mandate. They tend to recognise and respect the fact that they have no democratic mandate and therefore ought to yield to the House Commons’ will.

The last time the Parliament Acts were used was in 2004, when the government wanted to pass the Hunting Bill to ban fox hunting. Undoubtedly, many of the peers enjoy nothing more than spending a lost weekend battering foxes to death, and refused to let the Bill pass…

The Hunting Bill is now known as the Hunting Act 2004.


  • Ideas become Bills after the public has been consulted.
  • The Bill must pass a number of stages in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
  • Once a Bill has been passed by both houses it receives the Royal Assent.
  • It is possible for a Bill to become an Act without the consent of the House of Lords. This is permitted by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949.



In previous posts we have considered the legal mechanisms for imposing criminal liability on secondary parties (aiding and abetting) as well as participants in a joint enterprise. Those two mechanisms have something in common: The people caught within their net may not have committed any physical, substantive crime. If D persuades P to stab V, D is guilty of abetting murder even though he has not physically killed anybody. Similarly, if D takes part in a joint criminal enterprise with P, and in the course of that enterprise P shoots V in the head, D may be guilty of murder notwithstanding the fact that D did not physically kill anybody.

Conspiracy shares this common feature. It imposes criminal liability on those who form an agreement to commit a crime, whether or not that crime actually takes place.

Conspiracy, along with criminal attempts, falls under the category of inchoate offences. According to the dictionary, inchoate means:

Not yet completed or fully developed; rudimentary.

Once one has formed an agreement to embark on a criminal endeavor, one has taken the first step towards a “fully developed” criminal offence. Since the offence has not yet been committed, the whole criminal endeavor is incomplete, or inchoate. Given a choice between a simple word and an ossified old word of Latin origin, the law always seems to plump for the latter. Maybe it has something to do with lawyers’ fees…

In the next few sections we will consider the legal rules and principles surrounding conspiracy. What is an “agreement”? What are the mens rea requirements? Can one conspire to commit an impossible act? We will also take some time to reflect on the rationale underlying this area of criminal law.

The Basics

Conspiracy is an aged member of the common law, developed by the judiciary over countless centuries. Its aim was, and is, to bring within the remit of criminal law those who form an agreement to commit a crime at some future date.

The law was placed on a statutory footing by the Criminal Law Act 1977, section 1(1):

Subject to the following provisions of this Part of this Act, if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either—

(a)will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement, or

(b)would do so but for the existence of facts which render the commission of the offence or any of the offences impossible,

he is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question.

The actus reus is clear: the offence is completed as soon as an agreement is reached with any other person or persons. So, if D and P form an agreement that P will rob the Bank of England next Tuesday, the offence of conspiracy to commit robbery is made out. If the police pick-up on the agreement – perhaps via covert surveillance or a prescient tip-off – they can arrest D and P and charge them with a criminal offence.

The mens rea of the offence also looks pretty clear: intention. This is explicitly stated under section 1(2) of the Act. But what must one intend? Will it be sufficient that D simply intended to form an agreement (that is, that D deliberately agreed to commit a criminal offence)? Or does D have to intend that the substantive offence will be committed? All will be explained below, where we consider mens rea in more depth.

Section 1(1) also makes it abundantly clear that one can form a conspiracy notwithstanding the fact that the offence to which one has agreed is actually impossible to commit. In the service of clarity, let us consider an example:

Rachel and Andrea are members of a gang known as the “Los Pollos Hermanos”. They earn their superabundant salaries by producing, distributing, and selling the drug known as “crystal meth”. Unfortunately for them, a particularly astute police officer suspects them of drug dealing. He installs a bug in their secret bunker and records their conversations. One morning, Rachel and Andrea are recorded as they form an agreement to produce crystal meth using a new technique with new chemical ingredients.

The following afternoon, Rachel and Andrea take delivery of the new chemicals; but before they begin mixing them, Officer Hank Schrader forces his way into the bunker and arrests them both for conspiracy to produce an illegal drug.

Scientific analysis later reveals that the chemical ingredients would have produced nothing more than harmless sludge. There was no possibility of them ever being capable of producing an illegal drug.

In that case, both Rachel and Andrea would be guilty of conspiracy to produce an illegal drug. The fact that they could not possibly have produced the drug is irrelevant.

An Agreement

Very rarely is it the case that the police are gifted with physical evidence of a conspiracy. Most criminals are sufficiently savvy to avoid writing down their plans in the form of a simple contract. As such, an agreement can be verbal; possibly even non-verbal. The extent to which a court would consider non-verbal actions evidence of a conspiracy is unclear, because the courts have not actually defined what an agreement is.

What we do know is that an agreement must be fairly specific. In R v Taylor (2002) D agreed with several others to import a class B drug into the UK. Or so he thought. What had actually been agreed upon was a plan to import a class A drug, and D had been confused about the nature of the agreement. The court held that D was not guilty of conspiracy to import a class A drug into the UK because he had not agreed to import a class A drug. Evidence of an agreement to import a class B drug is not evidence of an agreement to import a class A drug.

On the other hand, the courts will be prepared to overlook minor or irrelevant details if a general agreement has been reached. In R v Broad (1997) D agreed with P to import a class A drug into the UK. D thought he had agreed to import heroin, while P thought they had agreed to import cocaine. Both were found guilty of conspiracy to import a class A drug. The confusion about which specific class A drug was to be imported was an irrelevance.

It is vital to note that section 2(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1977 exempts certain people from the law of conspiracy:

  1. A spouse (husband or wife)
  2. A person under the age of criminal responsibility.
  3. The intended victim of the offence.

It is legally impossible for a married couple to form a conspiracy. If Mr and Mrs white form an agreement to murder their next-door neighbour, they are guilty of nothing more than being incredibly unpleasant neighbours. Similarly, if Mr White and his nine year-old son form a conspiracy to murder Mrs White, they are guilty of nothing more than being a desperately dysfunctional family.

Wheel and Chain Conspiracies

It is not necessary for all members of the conspiracy to talk to each other. In fact, members of a conspiracy might not know what their fellow conspirators look like, where they live, what their names are, what gender they belong to, how old they are, or how deranged they are. The conspiracy might be arranged by a “middle man” who hires conspirators separately (wheel conspiracy) or the agreement might be passed on by word of mouth: D1 tells D2, D2 tells D3, D3 tells D4 and so on (chain conspiracy). Consider the diagrams below (click to enlarge):

Wheel conspiracy

Wheel conspiracy

Chain conspiracy

Chain conspiracy


TaskConsider the following scenarios and decide which is an example of a wheel conspiracy, and which is an example of a chain conspiracy:

  1. Smith is a self-obsessed criminal whose main goal in life is to bolster his bank balance. Anybody who gets in his way ends up having their spines kicked through their hats. Smith decides that he wants to rob the Bank of England. The contacts list on his mobile phone consists of a variety of thugs and career criminals; so he starts to place phone calls. He hires Hogan to drive the getaway vehicle, Denning to control the staff, and Simmonds to launder the stolen cash.
  2. David has produced vast quantities of cocaine, which he wants to sell. He contacts his friend Daniel, who acts as distributor. In turn, Daniel contacts his friend Simon, who agrees to sell the drugs on the streets.

As a prosecutor, judge, or jury member, the key question is always the same:

What has to be ascertained is always the same matter: is it true to say…that the acts of the accused were done in persuance of a criminal purpose held in common between them? (R v Meyrick (1929))

Provided the answer to that question is yes, it does not matter whether the conspiracy comes as a wheel or a chain.

Mens Rea

Section 1(2) of the Act states the following:

Where liability for any offence may be incurred without knowledge on the part of the person committing it of any particular fact or circumstance necessary for the commission of the offence, a person shall nevertheless not be guilty of conspiracy to commit that offence by virtue of subsection (1) above unless he and at least one other party to the agreement intend or know that that fact or circumstance shall or will exist at the time when the conduct constituting the offence is to take place.

If we boil off the legal jargon, what we are left with is the following rule: Even if the crime agreed upon is one of recklessness or strict liability one cannot be guilty of conspiracy unless one intends to bring about that offence or knows that one will bring it about.

Consider the case of R v Saik (2006). In that case, D operated a bureau de change which – it was alleged – had been converting masses of stolen money into foreign currency: a clear example of money laundering. When he was charged with conspiracy to launder money, D accepted that he had suspected the money was stolen. We might say that he laundered the money with recklessness. On appeal, his conviction for conspiracy was quashed because he had not known that the money was stolen.

Does D Have to Intend That the Crime be Committed?

Looking at the Act, it is fairly clear that in order to be guilty of conspiracy, one must intend to form an agreement with at least one other person. But does the Act go further than that? Must D intend that the crime will be committed?

In R v Anderson (1986) D agreed with E and F to help break an inmate out of prison. For a payment of £20,000 he agreed to supply diamond wire, rope, ladders, and a safehouse. When D was charged with conspiracy, he argued that he intended to take the £20,000, supply only the diamond wire, and then run away to Spain. In effect, although he intended to agree with E and F, he did not intend to see the crime through.

The House of Lords in Anderson unanimously held that it was not necessary for D to intend to see the crime through. He had intended to form an agreement; the agreement had been formed; and the formation was enough to make him guilty of conspiracy.

The judgment in Anderson appears, at first glance, to be a victory for common sense. Something in our moral consciousness tells us that the defendant in Anderson had done something terribly wrong and deserved to be punished. But see if your opinion changes after taking-on the following task:


TaskConsider the ruling in R v Anderson and apply it to the following case:

Hank is an undercover police officer who has infiltrated a violent criminal gang which has been responsible for countless murders, and he is trying to gather enough evidence to put the gangsters on trial. One morning, in the local pool hall, Hank is invited to a meeting with Don Corleone and several of his henchmen. During the course of that meeting, the gangsters discuss a “hit” on a rival gang member and agree to shoot him dead the following day. Hank does not want to blow his cover or arouse suspicion, so he too agrees to the murder, although he intends to inform the police immediately after the meeting. As Hank is leaving the pool hall, the police raid the building and arrest the conspirators. Hank is charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

Since the ruling in R v Anderson states that D must intend to form an agreement, but does not have to intend that the crime ever takes place, Hank would be guilty. He intended to form an agreement and an agreement was formed. Although he might argue that he did not intend to see the crime though to its conclusion, this would be no defence, just as it was no defence for the defendant in Anderson.

The judgment in Anderson is clearly unsustainable and ill-considered. As a result, the Court of Appeal has ignored the Anderson decision on several occasions (Edwards (1991), Ashton (1992), Harvey (1999)).

In R v Edwards (1991) D agreed to supply E with amphetamine. He was convicted of conspiracy to supply a controlled substance but appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeal. The Court stated that in order to found a conviction for conspiracy to supply amphetamine, it must be proved that D intended to supply amphetamine. Since there was evidence to suggest that D actually intended to supply ephedrine instead of amphetamine, his conviction was quashed.

The decision by the Court of Appeal in Edwards clearly contradicts the decision of the House of Lords in Anderson. And although the judgments of the higher court ordinarily bind lower courts, it is suggested that the reasoning in Edwards, Ashton, and Harvey is the more accurate statement of law. The cases are more recent than Anderson, more reasonable, and more voluminous.

Although the law is far from clear, it seems likely that one must check the following boxes in order to have the mens rea for conspiracy:

  1. An intention to form an agreement which necessarily involves the commission of a crime.
  2. An intention that the crime be committed.

Intention to Play a Role in the Criminal Offence?

Is it possible for D to be guilty of conspiracy even though D does not intend to get involved in the crime? Even though D intends to play no part in the offence? Even though D is merely a silent partner?

Consider the case where D is a Mafia boss. He sits around a table with his fellow gangsters and makes a plan to rob the local bank. He gives several gangsters different jobs to do: drive the car, shoot the guards, break into the safe etc. The Mafia boss has one job, and one job only: to take a cut of the stolen money. Do you think that the law will let him get away with it? Or will he be guilty of conspiracy despite his lack of involvement?

In R v Siracusa (1989) the Court of Appeal stated that a conspiracy can be committed in one of two ways:

  1. D intends to actively participate in the crime (drive the car, shoot the guards etc).
  2. D intends to passively participate in the crime by failing to stop the unlawful activity.

In simple terms, D does not have to get involved in the substantive crime. If he has agreed that a crime should be committed, he is guilty of conspiracy. Full-stop.

Common Law Conspiracy

The Criminal Law Act 1977 explicitly retains two of the old forms of common law conspiracy:

  1. Conspiracy to defraud.
  2. Conspiracy to corrupt public morals.

The key case on conspiracy to defraud is Scott v MPC (1975) where Viscount Dilhorne described the offence as being:

An agreement by dishonesty to deprive a person of something to which is his or to which he is, or would be, entitled, and an agreement by two or more by dishonesty to injure some proprietary right of his.

Lord Diplock added that:

The purpose of the conspirators must be to cause the victim economic loss.

Let’s illuminate these statements of law by applying them to a case. In R v Cooke (1986) D was a British Rail steward who, along with some colleagues, took his own food and drink on-board a British Rail train and sold them as if they belonged to British Rail. D and his colleagues had agreed to deprive British Rail of the right to profit from food and drink sold on-board their trains; their purpose was to cause British Rail economic loss; therefore D was guilty of conspiracy to defraud.

The key case on conspiracy to corrupt public morals is Knuller (Publishing, Printing and Promotions) Ltd v DPP (1973). In that case, Lord Simon said that a conspiracy to corrupt public morals involves an agreement to carry out a course of conduct “which a jury might find to be destructive of the very fabric of society”.

Lord Simon’s intention was to limit the scope of conspiracy to corrupt public morals to those acts which are egregiously terrible, but the category is still incredibly broad. One of the principles of the rule of law is that the law should be relatively clear and unambiguous; it should be possible for ordinary citizens to discover what they can and cannot do under the law. And yet here we have a criminal offence whose scope depends entirely on the moral ideas of a jury of peers.

In Shaw v DPP (1962) D was the publisher of a magazine which detailed the names and addresses of prostitutes, along with descriptions of the sexual acts they were willing to perform. The House of Lords upheld his conviction for conspiracy to corrupt public morals.


  • Conspiracy is an inchoate offence.
  • It requires an agreement between two or more people.
  • It is not necessary for all conspirators to meet. The conspiracy might take the form of a wheel or a chain.
  • D must have an intention to form an agreement, and an intention that the offence be committed.
  • The agreement must be relatively specific.
  • D does not have to intend to play a role in the commission of the offence. He can be a silent partner.
  • Two categories of common law conspiracy prevail: conspiracy to defraud and conspiracy to corrupt public morals.

Joint Enterprise


In the previous article on secondary parties we looked at how the law deals with people who provide help, encouragement and assistance to third parties committing a crime. We saw that a person (A) who provides a knife to another person (D) – knowing that D is going to use the knife to murder someone – can be tried, indicted, and punished as a murderer. Person A will be brought before a jury of his peers and charged with murder. If A is found guilty, he will be sent to prison with a mandatory life sentence.

This article seeks to explain how the law handles criminal offences carried out by a group, or gang, of people. Consider the following example:

Walt, Jessie, Michael, and Gus are members of a gang. They have all agreed to locate their archenemy, Todd, and kick him to death.

They find Todd outside his house reading Tom Bingham’s excellent book The Rule of Law. The gang runs over to Todd and Walt drags him to the pavement. Walt begins to stomp on Todd’s head while Jessie, Michael and Gus repeatedly kick him in the stomach and legs.

Todd dies as a result of the violent attack, and the gang members are apprehended by the police. It is impossible to prove which kick was the “fatal blow”. No scientific or forensic methods can possibly identify which member of the gang was responsible for his death.

The problem with the above scenario is that nobody can prove which gang member caused the death of Todd. The ordinary rules of causation make it very difficult, if not impossible, to identify the murderer and prove beyond reasonable doubt that he unlawfully killed Todd.

The law’s answer to this problem lies in the doctrine of joint enterprise. When two or more people embark on a joint criminal enterprise, all members of that gang can be punished for crimes committed by just one gang member, provided they foresaw that the crime was likely to happen. So, in the above scenario, the law would cast the net of murder around Walt, Jessie, Michael, and Gus. They would all be held criminally responsible for Todd’s death.

The Basics

In the case of Stewart and Schofield, Hobhouse LJ highlighted the key difference between secondary parties and joint enterprise. He said that whereas an aider and abettor is not necessarily involved in the commission of the principal offence, a joint enterprise entails “taking part in the execution of an offence“. The key difference is that in order to be found guilty under the joint enterprise rules, one has to play some form of role in the execution of a criminal offence. Merely providing a murder weapon or shouting encouragement from a safe vantage point will not be sufficient.

J. Martin offers a more concise formulation of this critical difference. She defines joint enterprise as being “Where two or more people commit an offence together“.

The key word in Martin’s definition is “an”. If four people come together to commit burglary, and in the course of that burglary one person shoots the homeowner, all four burglars might be guilty of murder under the joint enterprise umbrella. This is true despite the fact that the other three burglars might have had absolutely nothing to do with the murder. Indeed, they might have watched in horror as their comrade whipped out a pistol and fired the fateful bullet into the homeowner’s chest. It is sufficient, in terms of actus reus, that all four burglars were committing an offence together (burglary) and there is no need to prove that they were all committing murder together.

Mens Rea Requirements

Joint enterprise comes with three key mens rea requirements:

  1. D1 must have foresight that D2 might commit a certain crime.
  2. D1 must foresee that D2 will have the relevant mens rea for that crime.
  3. D2 must commit the crime during the course of the joint enterprise.

These requirements can be found in the case of R v English (1997) where the court said:

If two parties embark on a joint enterprise and one party foresees that in the course of that enterprise the other party may commit, with the requisite mens rea, and act constituting another crime, the former is liable for that crime if committed by the latter in the course of the enterprise.

In R v English D and E took part in a joint enterprise to attack a police officer (V) with wooden posts. During the course of the violent conflict, E produced a knife and stabbed V to death. D was convicted of murder under the joint enterprise doctrine and appealed his case all the way up to the House of Lords.

On appeal, the House of Lords quashed his conviction. D did not foresee that E would use a knife with intent to kill during the course of the joint enterprise. Lord Hutton stated that if the weapon used by E was different to, but just as dangerous as, the weapon which D foresaw he might use, then D would be guilty. If, however, the weapon used by E was far more dangerous and had a far greater propensity to kill, then D would be not guilty. In English, a knife was held to be far more dangerous than a wooden post.

The basis of the House of Lords’ judgment in English was that if D and E embark on a joint enterprise, and D knows that E is carrying a knife, or a gun, or a spear, or anything of that sort, then there is evidence that D foresaw that E would use that weapon to kill.

The principle in English is backed-up by Lord Bingham’s judgment in Rahman and Others (2008). He accepted that in order to be found guilty under the joint enterprise doctrine, it is necessary to prove that D foresaw that E might commit a certain offence. Bingham suggested that if D knew that E possessed a dangerous weapon, then there is very strong evidence that D foresaw that E might commit a serious crime such as murder.

Let’s boil the judgments in English and Rahman down to a simple statement of law, using a case study to aid understanding:

Tom, Frank and James are part of a gang. They spend every Wednesday night driving around the local area looking for houses to burgle. One Wednesday night, as they are getting ready to head out into the streets, Frank and James watch Tom sliding a machete into a secret pouch inside his jacket. Not wanting to cause a fuss, they carry on getting ready for the long night ahead.

A couple of hours later, Tom, Frank and James spot an empty house and agree to force their way inside and steal the television. The door is unlocked, and they creep into the bedroom hoping to find some valuable jewelry. The sound of the bedroom door opening alerts Hank, who had been slumbering in his bed. Hank – a trained boxer – is handy with his fists and squares-up to Tom. Tom does not like it when people stand-up to him, so he grasps the machete from inside his jacket and plunges it into Hank’s throat.

Hank dies as a result of the wound, and Tom, Frank, and James are arrested by the police.

Although Frank and James did not perpetrate Hank’s murder, it is likely that they will be found guilty of murder under the rules laid down in R v English and Rahman and Others. They knew that Tom possessed a machete, therefore they foresaw a chance that he might use it to kill someone with intent.

An interesting corollary of these joint enterprise rules is that the crime of murder does not necessarily require an intention to kill. D can be convicted of murder under the joint enterprise rules merely because D foresees that somebody else might kill. This is a very low level of mens rea for such a serious crime. Murder comes with a requirement of intention – the most morally blameworthy form of mens rea – because of the fact that it carries a mandatory life sentence, and yet joint enterprise casts its net around people who merely foresee that a murder might be committed by somebody else.

Those who support the law of joint enterprise argue that this is a necessary evil. The law faces a choice: either it allows the perpetrators of gang violence to escape punishment, or it casts a life sentence on all of them. But the law faces problems with the burden of proof every single day. Consider, for example, how difficult it is to secure a conviction for rape – a crime which commonly occurs in private. Perhaps the same argument could be made to justify lowering the burden of proof in rape trials from “beyond reasonable doubt” to “more likely than not”. By doing so, it would be much easier to lock away genuinely evil rapists, but the law would also end-up catching thousands of innocent men in its net.

Going Beyond what was Foreseen

Since D can only be convicted under the joint enterprise rules if D foresees that E might commit a certain crime, it follows that D cannot be convicted if E carries out a crime which was not foreseen.

In Rafferty (2007) D, E, and F were assaulting a man on a beach with the intention of robbing him. During the course of the attack, D left to withdraw some cash from a cash machine. While D was busy at the ATM, E and F dragged the victim into the sea and drowned him.

The court held that D was not guilty of murder under the joint enterprise rules because he had taken part in a gang attack to assault and rob. He did not foresee that E and F would commit murder. Indeed, murder was of a radically different nature to the crimes he did foresee.

The legal principle demonstrated in Rafferty was enunciated by Toulson LJ in Mendez and Thompson (2010):

It would not be just that D should be found guilty of the murder of V by E, if E’s act was of a different kind from, and much more dangerous than, the sort of acts which D intended or foresaw as part of the joint enterprise.

Withdrawal from Participation

It is possible for any member of the joint enterprise to withdraw from it and avoid liability for any crimes committed after his withdrawal.

In Becerra and Cooper (1975) the Court of Appeal stated that in order to effectively withdraw from a joint enterprise D must serve unequivocal notice that he is withdrawing.

In that case, D and E were engaged in a joint enterprise to commit burglary. During the course of the burglary the upstairs neighbour overheard the commotion and came to investigate. D panicked at this unexpected intrusion and shouted “Come on, let’s go!” before climbing out of the window. E did not heed D’s advice, opting instead to murder the neighbour. The Court of Appeal stated that something vastly different and more effective was required in order to effectively withdraw. D’s intention in shouting “Come on, let’s go!” was merely to avoid getting caught by the neighbour and did not serve unequivocal notice that he was abandoning the joint enterprise.

Similarly, in Baker (1994) the words “I’m not doing it” were not sufficiently unequivocal to effectively withdraw from a joint enterprise. D and E had taken V to some waste ground in order to stab him. D stabbed V three times before handing the knife to E and saying “I’m not doing it”. E continued to stab V dozens of times until he died.

The Court of Appeal stated that D had not served unequivocal notice that he intended to withdraw from the joint enterprise. To the contrary, “I’m not doing it” was the equivalent of saying “I myself will not strike any more blows”.

Is Reform Needed?

The criminal law is based on certain presuppositions:

  1. No crime without mens rea.
  2. One can only be punished for the crimes one actually commits.
  3. Sentences will vary depending on the severity of one’s crime.

Joint enterprise tends to bulldoze its way through these foundations in pursuit of violent gangs.

On the first point – no crime without mens rea – it might be argued that one must have foresight that a particular crime might be committed. This is a very mild form of mens rea relative to intention, but mens rea nonetheless. However, the Committee for the Reform of Joint Enterprise has stated that:

 In the majority of joint enterprise cases, prosecutors and the courts focus on D2’s knowledge that the principal has a weapon which turns out to be the murder weapon, and asks the jury to decide whether D2“must have foreseen” that it would be used. Thus, although the standard of D2’s fault is in theory a subjective one, the practical reality of jury trial is that it has become objective. D2 can be convicted of murder, therefore, if the jury think, without more, that he should have known that D1 might kill or seriously injure the victim.

If their submission is true, then joint enterprise does not require proof of mens rea. It is sufficient that D should have foreseen the possibility of E committing murder, but it is not necessary that he actually did foresee it (see the post on recklessness for an in-depth explanation of subjective vs objective mens rea). It is nothing less than a major shock to discover that a person can be sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime as serious as murder even though he had no mens rea whatsoever. We might call it strict liability murder, even though strict liability is generally reserved for incredibly minor offences such as speeding.

The second point – that one may only be punished for the crimes one actually commits – is so obviously trampled by the law of joint enterprise that it requires very little explanation. In Becerra and Cooper (above) D did not murder the victim. The life of the victim was obviously taken by E.

It might be argued that it is morally right that D should have been found guilty in Becerra and Cooper because he had a chance to prevent the murder and failed to do so. But UK law does not generally punish omissions. If you walk past a drowning child and decide not to help, you will not find yourself before the Crown Court on a charge of murder.

Finally, joint enterprise imposes the same sentence on every person who participates in a crime. The case of R v Mitchell (2008) provides a stark example of how the doctrine can be abused:

In Mitchell D and her friends were involved in an aggressive fight in a taxi rank. The fight was so aggressive that the jury found that D must have foreseen a possibility that serious harm, or even death, could result. However, the fight came to an end and D’s friends left the scene. D lingered in the car park looking for her shoes and considered the fight over and done with.

Unfortunately for D, her friends had only left the scene temporarily in order to collect some weapons from a nearby house. When they returned, they murdered the victim while D was still on the scene.

The jury in Mitchell decided that there was one long joint enterprise, starting with the original fight in the taxi rank and ending with the victim’s death. Since D had not given unequivocal notice to her friends that she intended to leave the joint enterprise, she was still considered to be a part of it when they returned to the scene with weapons. And since she had foreseen that death or serious harm might result during the original fight in the taxi rank, she had the required mens rea for murder. She was found guilty of murder.

Few people would argue that D did nothing wrong. Getting involved in a violent assault during a night out is a very serious crime and would usually be dealt with as an offence of actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm. Both very serious. Both carrying significant sentences to reflect their severity. But by the time her friends came back and murdered the victim, she had ceased her involvement. She did not intend to kill anybody. In essence, she was held responsible for the murderous actions of her friends.

In conclusion, one ought to be very wary of trampling legal safeguards and principles in pursuit of violent criminals. No doubt the law of joint enterprise can help scoop-up wrongdoers and secure justice, but it must also be recognised that it simultaneously scoops-up the wrong people. Is that a price worth paying?


  • A joint enterprise involves two or more people embarking on a joint criminal venture.
  • All members of that enterprise will be guilty of offences committed during the joint enterprise provided they foresaw a possibility that such a crime might occur.
  • Knowledge that another member of the joint enterprise possesses a weapon is considered strong evidence that D foresaw the use of that weapon.
  • If one member of the joint enterprise does something which was completely unforeseen by D, or radically different from what was foreseen, then D is not liable.
  • It is possible to withdraw from a joint enterprise, but withdrawal requires unequivocal notice.

Secondary Parties


Before moving onto this post, it is strongly recommended that you read the article on causation. Having done so, you will understand that when a third party voluntarily intervenes somewhere along the chain of causation, the law imposes a novus actus interveniens and ceases to regard the original actor as criminally responsible for the eventual outcome. Consider the following example:

In R v Kennedy (Simon) [2007] the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) was faced with the following case: The defendant had been convicted by a lower court of unlawful act manslaughter after he prepared an injection of heroin for his friend. Having prepared the injection, the victim administered it to himself and later died by choking on his own vomit. The House of Lords quashed the defendant’s conviction because his victim had made a free and informed decision to administer the heroin. The law assumes the existence of free will and this was sufficient to absolve the defendant of blame. The key principle to bear in mind is that when a third party voluntarily intervenes – as did the victim in the present case – the chain of causation is broken.

This leaves the law with a problem. How does the law deal with the man who provides a vicious murderer with a knife, knowing that he is going to use it to slit the throat of an enemy? How does the law deal with the woman who persuades her friend to deliver a letter bomb to her enemy? How does it deal with the man who deliberately slips alcohol into his friend’s soft drink and causes him to drink drive?

The answer lies in section 8 of the Accessories and Abettors Act 1861, which states:

Whosoever shall aid, abet, counsel or procure any offence…shall be liable to be tried, indicted and punished as a principal offender.

This legal provision ensures that the man who provides the knife, and the woman who persuades her friend to deliver a letter bomb to her enemy, are tried and punished as murderers. As Lord Bingham stated in R v Kennedy (Simon):

The doctrine of secondary liability was developed precisely because an informed voluntary choice was ordinarily regarded as a novus actus interveniens breaking the chain of causation.

In the following sections, we will be taking a look at the rules surrounding this area of the law.

The Basics

The title of this post is secondary parties. This is because the liability of the person who aids, abets, counsels or procures depends upon the crime (be it murder, assault, burglary, or any other offence) being committed by somebody else. For example, in the scenario where A sells a knife to B, knowing that B is going to use it to murder C, A is not guilty of aiding and abetting murder unless B actually goes ahead and murders C. If B collects the knife and then gets cold feet, A cannot be guilty of aiding and abetting murder.

Another way of describing the above principle is that aiding, abetting, counseling and procuring is a derivative offence. The criminal liability of the man who provides the knife to B derives from B’s murder. As we will see in a later post, this differs from the concept of joint enterprise, where several people are held jointly responsible for a crime because they acted in concert, or as a gang.

Key Terms

In the cases on secondary parties, a couple of terms routinely appear:

Principal – The principal offender is the person who physically carries out the crime. So, in the example where A provides B with a knife, and B uses that knife to kill C; B is the principal offender.

Accessory – The accessory is the person who aids, abets, counsels or procures another person to commit an offence. So, in the above example, A is the accessory. The criminal liability of the accessory always depends upon the criminal act of the principal.

Of course, it is also necessary to consider what the words aid, abet, counsel and procure actually mean. Do they have some kind of special legal meaning?

In Attorney General’s Reference (no. 1 of 1975) the court stated that these words should be given their ordinary meaning. D. Ormerod, who authors one of the most authoritative textbooks on criminal law, provides the following definitions:

Aiding – To give help, support, or assistance to. This would cover things like providing a weapon, driving A to B’s house so he can murder B, acting as a lookout, and helping to plan an offence.

Abetting – To incite, instigate or encourage. This would cover things like shouting words of encouragement during a fight, and persuading your friend to drink drive.

Counseling – Ormerod states that counseling is the same thing as abetting. Other authors, such as J. Martin, assert that whereas abetting requires encouragement during a crime, counseling requires encouragement before the crime. Both abetting and counseling tend to be treated by the courts as synonymous.

Procuring – This word was defined by the court in Attorney General’s Reference (no. 1 of 1975). In that case, Widgery CJ said the following:

To procure means to produce by endeavour. You procure a thing by setting out to see that it happens and taking the appropriate steps to produce that happening. We think that there are plenty of instances in which a person may be said to procure the commission of a crime by another even though there is no sort of conspiracy between the two, even though there is no attempt at agreement or discussion as to the form which the offence should take.

In the above case D spiked P’s drink, knowing that he would drive home whilst under the influence of alcohol. He had set out to see that P drove home whilst drunk, and took the appropriate steps to produce that happening. The key difference between procuring and the other three terms is that in order to procure one must be the factual and legal cause of the offence. In order to aid, abet, or counsel, the prosecution does not need to prove that the secondary party caused the offence – merely that they helped or persuaded. It could very easily be the case that selling a knife to B was not the cause of B stabbing C. B may have killed him via other methods even without your assistance.


Consider the following scenarios and choose which label best fits the crime: aiding, abetting, counseling or procuring:

  1. Roger, who works in a D.I.Y. store is approached by Ahmed. Ahmed says “I’m sick of my neighbour. He keeps getting his circular saw out at five o’clock in the morning and waking my family. I want to stab him. That’ll shut him up for good. Do you have any ten inch blades?” Roger recognises Ahmed as a convicted murderer who was released from prison several weeks ago. He sells a large knife to Ahmed, and Ahmed murders his neighbour the following day.
  2. Liam is enjoying a friendly soft-drink with his sister Sarah. Liam is of the opinion that Sarah is a terrible driver and he decides to run an experiment to see if her driving improves when she is on drugs. When Sarah leaves to visit the bathroom, he slips some ketamine into her lemonade. Later on that evening, Sarah drives home and is pulled over by the police for dangerous driving. She is later convicted of driving whilst under the influence of drugs.
  3. Holly has recently fallen out with her best friend Chris. She decides to telephone her friend Selina and persuade her to beat-up Chris. Selina is very easily persuaded. The following day, she drives to Chris’ house, knocks on his door, and kicks him in the face when he answers. Selina is arrested by the police and convicted of inflicting grievous bodily harm with intent to wound.

Before we move on to consider some concrete examples of secondary liability, it is necessary to understand the timing element of the offence.

In R v King (1817) P broke into a warehouse and stole some butter. He deposited the stolen goods in the street and D turned up to help him to carry the butter away. The court decided that D was not guilty of aiding and abetting P because his assistance was offered after the crime had taken place. One can only be guilty as a secondary party for acts done before or at the time of the offence.


In National Coal Board v Gamble (1959) P filled his lorry with coal at the colliery. He then proceeded to drive the lorry onto the weighing machine, where he was informed that he had overloaded the vehicle. It was too heavy to be legally driven on public highways. Despite this knowledge, the colliery (D) provided him with a ticket permitting him to leave the premises and proceed on his journey. P knew that his lorry was too heavy but decided to carry on with his journey, using the ticket to raise the exit barriers.

The court stated that D was guilty of aiding P to commit the offence of driving an overloaded vehicle on a public highway. By providing P with a ticket they had assisted him in the commission of the crime.

In R v Bryce (2004) D drove P and a gun to a caravan where V was living. D knew that P was likely to murder V but he still decided to act as his driver. The court upheld D’s conviction for murder because he had intentionally driven P to the caravan knowing that he was helping him to commit murder.

Abetting and Counseling

In Tuck v Robson (1970) D – the owner of a pub – allowed his customers to continue drinking on his premises after the legally permitted hours. He made a deliberate decision not to enforce his right to eject them. As such, the court upheld his conviction for aiding and abetting the offence of drinking after hours. His failure to eject the law breaking customers was a form of encouragement for them to continue drinking.

In R v Clarkson (1971) two soldiers walked into a room where another soldier, P, was raping a woman. They stayed to watch but did not say or do anything. The court said that this was not enough to constitute abetting rape because the act of standing in silence did not actually encourage P to rape. It is likely that if they had egged P on, pumped their fists or done some other action indicating encouragement, they would have been found guilty.

Another case highlighting the same principle as R v Clarkson is R v Coney (1882). In this case, the defendants were present at an illegal bare-knuckle boxing match. They sat and watched the fight in silence in the same way as the defendants in Clarkson watched the rape in silence. The court stated that there were no acts of actual encouragement and so they were not guilty as secondary parties.

The important point to take away from this series of cases is that in order to be guilty of aiding and abetting, the defendant must actually do something to aid or abet. This is a question of fact which is ordinarily left to a jury and does not necessarily mean that the defendant must have said something. Any act – even something as basic as being a murderer’s lookout – could be sufficient to actually aid or abet.

A further important point was made by the court in Attorney General’s Reference (no. 1 of 1975). There, the court stated that abetting and counseling requires some form of “meeting of minds“. In other words, if John persuades Sarah to murder Laura, but Sarah actually murders Nicola, John is not guilty as an accessory to murder. John and Sarah had a meeting of minds to murder Laura, not Nicola.

To state it in simple terms, P must be aware that he has the approval of D to perform the crime. In the above example, Sarah does not believe that she has John’s approval to murder Nicola, so John is not guilty of abetting or counseling murder.


The key case on procuring is Attorney General’s Reference (no. 1 of 1975) which is discussed above.

Mens Rea of Secondary Parties

We have already seen from the above cases that the actus reus of accessorial liability can be something as simple as keeping watch whilst your associate commits murder. Any act which is sufficient to actually assist, encourage, or procure is enough. Note the huge difference between the principal and the accessory: in the case of murder, the principal must unlawfully kill a human being, while the accessory can be guilty of the same offence merely by driving P to the scene of the crime. Although the actus reus of both parties is wholly different in nature, they are both treated as murderers and given a mandatory life sentence. Do you think this is fair?

The actus reus element is relatively easy to fulfill, but there is also a mens rea requirement which is fairly complex and loaded with problems.

There are two elements to the mens rea for secondary parties:

  1. Intention or belief that the act will encourage or assist or – in the case of procuring – bring the offence about.
  2. Knowledge of the type of crime that P is likely to commit. Including the type of mens rea that P is likely to have.

Let’s take a look at the two elements separately.

Intention or belief that the act will encourage, assist, or bring the offence about

It is very important to remember that the defendant must intend or believe that his act will encourage, assist, or bring the offence about. This element of the mens rea does not require the secondary party to intend or desire the crime to be committed.

In Lynch v DPP for Northern Ireland (1975) D drove P to a place where he intended to commit murder. D was horrified at the prospect of V’s murder and did not desire it to happen. Nevertheless, he intended to assist P in the commission of a murder. The question whether or not the secondary party desires P to commit a certain crime is irrelevant. What matters is that the secondary party intends or believes that what he is doing will encourage or assist. So, in this case, although D was horrified by what P was going to do, he nevertheless knew that he was likely to do it and knew that by driving him to the scene he was assisting him.

Similarly, in Cook v Stockwell the defendant sold beer to a number of cottages despite the fact the he knew they were illegally reselling it without a licence. The secondary party did not desire the cottages to resell the beer illegally, but he nevertheless knew what they were doing and knew that by selling them the beer he was assisting them.

The principle demonstrated in the above cases is helpfully stated by Devlin J in R v J F Transport Ltd:

If you sell a gun to someone, you may be indifferent whether the person dies, but you can still be guilty of aiding and abetting.

Knowledge of the type of crime that P is likely to commit

Re-read the subheading above and think about what it might mean. If James sells Liam a knife, thinking that he is likely to use it to commit criminal damage (perhaps by scratching somebody’s car), but Liam in fact uses it to murder somebody, do you think James would be guilty of murder as a secondary party?

The key words here are type and likely. The defendant does not have to be certain that P will commit a certain crime, and he only needs to know the type of crime that is likely to be committed: he does not have to know all the details. Let’s look at a few cases to back-up these statements.

In R v Bainbridge (1959) the defendant purchased some oxygen cutting equipment for P, who used it to break into a bank. On appeal, D argued that he could not be guilty of aiding and abetting P to commit the crime because he did not know which bank he would break into or at what time. In other words, although he knew what the oxygen cutting equipment was going to be used for, he did not know the specific details of the crime.

The court decided that the defendant in Bainbridge was guilty as a secondary party because although he did not foresee the specific details of the crime, he nevertheless foresaw the type of crime that he was aiding.

Think about why the court made this decision. What would have happened if the court had set a precedent that secondary parties must know all the details of the crime in advance? Would it be easy to secure convictions?

In R v Webster (2006) D was driving a car with P as his passenger. D got tired and allowed P to take over driving duty despite the fact that he knew P to be drunk. P was later convicted of causing death by dangerous driving.

The court in Webster stated that it was sufficient that D foresaw that P was likely to drive dangerously. It is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that D foresees dangerous driving as a certainty. Of course, very little in life is certain and if the court had stated that certainty was the requirement instead of likelihood, the law of aiding and abetting would have been emptied of all content. It would have made it nearly impossible to convict anybody under the Accessories and Abettors Act.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the mens rea for the prosecution to prove is the requirement that D foresaw the type of mens rea that P would have during the commission of the crime. For example, where D provides P with a knife, he must know that P is likely to stab somebody with intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.

In R v Dunbar (1988) D persuaded P to inflict light violence on V during the course of a burglary. In fact, P went on to murder V. The court stated that D was not guilty as an accessory because he had not foreseen the mens rea of P. He had genuinely thought that P would attack V with intention to inflict light violence, not to kill.

Changing the Substance of a Specific Plan

What happens when two people come together to form a very specific plan, but one of them goes off plan and does something completely unexpected?

In R v Reardon (1999) the court stated that:

If B aids, abets, counsels or procures A to commit a crime against a particular person…B is not liable if A intentionally commits an offence of the same type against some other person.

So if Jessie approaches Walt and asks him to provide a gun so that he can kill Gus, Walt is not guilty as an accessory to murder if Jessie uses the gun to murder Michael. If a specific plan is formed, and the principal changes that plan in substance, then the secondary party is not guilty of an offence.

It is important to note that the plan must be changed by the principle in substance. That would include things like murdering a different person, but would not include murdering the correct person at a different time or in a different place.


  • Section 8 of the Accessories and Abettors Act 1861 makes it an offence to aid, abet, counsel or procure a crime.
  • The words in section 8 are to be given their ordinary meanings.
  • The actus reus of the offence is to do an act which actually aids, abets, counsels, or procures.
  • The mens rea requires an intention to aid, abet, counsel or procure but does not require the defendant to desire the commission of the crime.
  • The mens rea requires knowledge of the type of crime that P is likely to commit but does not require knowledge of specific details.
  • The mens rea requires foresight of the type of mens rea that P is likely to have when he commits the crime.
  • If P and D form a specific plan, and P changes the substance of the plan, then D is not guilty as an accessory.

The UK Constitution


In previous posts we have explored the historical development of the English legal system. We have traced the story all the way back to the imperial despotism of William the Conqueror in 1066, and drawn a line through failed revolutions (the Peasants’ Revolt), Magna Carta (1215), the swelling of monarchical power (Henry VIII), the overthrow of the monarchy (Civil War), the restoration of the monarchy, and the eventual compromise between parliament and the monarch leading to the present system of constitutional monarchy.

To be terse, the present constitution of the UK – developed over centuries of struggle – gives the Queen power in name only and provides Parliament with ultimate power.

Through this narrative we can see that the UK began with a system of government imposed on the people. The subjects of England did not choose to have William the Conqueror as their ruler and they certainly did not have any affection for his brutality. This system of forcibly imposed government continued all the way through to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the monarchy was finally forced to relinquish many of its most despotic powers in favour of the Commons.

For the last few centuries, England has not been invaded by foreign states or had a revolution. It has not had a completely fresh start like, say, the United States. Mainly because of this, we have never quite managed to shake off the old idea that the government is imposed on us, rather than selected by us, and this more than anything has contributed to the nature of our unwritten constitution.

Take the contrasting case of the United States. There, a successful revolution took place against the English and a brand new system of government was installed. The people discarded the old system of government and started a fresh one, with a glittering new written constitution setting out what the government may and may not do. This was a government by the people, for the people, of the people, even though the category of “people” was in fact a very small slice of the population.

In the following sections, we are going to take a look at the nature of the UK’s constitution: where can you find it? what are its main principles? how can it be altered?

We are also going to look at the American constitution and draw some comparisons, always bearing in mind the following question: “Should the UK trade-in its unwritten constitution for a written one?”

What is a constitution?

In his attack on Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine (one of the USA’s founding fathers) said:

A constitution is not a thing in name only, but in fact. It has not an ideal, but a real existence; and wherever it cannot be produced in a visible form, there is none. A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of a constitution. The constitution of a country is not the act of its government, but of the people constituting its government. It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and which contains the principles on which the government shall be established, the manner in which it shall be organised, the powers it shall have, the mode of elections, the duration of Parliaments, or by what other name such bodies may be called; the powers which the executive part of the government shall have; and in fine, everything that relates to the complete organisation of a civil government, and the principles on which it shall act, and by which it shall be bound. A constitution, therefore, is to a government what the laws made afterwards by that government are to a court of judicature. The court of judicature does not make the laws, neither can it alter them; it only acts in conformity to the laws made: and the government is in like manner governed by the constitution.

Can, then, Mr. Burke produce the English Constitution? If he cannot, we may fairly conclude that though it has been so much talked about, no such thing as a constitution exists, or ever did exist, and consequently that the people have yet a constitution to form.

(Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)

Thomas Paine

Paine’s criticism centered on the unwritten nature of our constitution. You can try as hard as you like to find a concise article-by-article document containing all the provisions of our constitution, but all your efforts will be in vain. If, on the other hand, you’re an American with an interest in the American constitution, all you have to do is click here.

But is Paine correct to argue that the idea of having an “unwritten constitution” is a fallacy? Is he correct to say that a constitution which cannot easily be found in one document therefore does not exist?

Well, if we allow Paine his own definition of constitution then he is undoubtedly correct: “A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of a constitution. The constitution of a country is not the act of its government, but of the people constituting its government. It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article.

Take a look at that word antecedent. It means that the constitution comes before the government, which only exists because the constitutions permits it to. The government of the USA cannot alter the constitution any more than a judge in Liverpool Crown Court can alter a law passed down by Parliament. In other words, the American constitution is rigid.

Rigid vs Flexibile Constitutions

Perhaps the best authority on the UK constitution is A.V. Dicey. His book Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution has been referred to by judges and even a former Prime Minister in the House of Commons. In discussing the distinction between rigid and flexible constitutions, he says the following:

A “flexible” constitution is one under which every law of every description can be legally changed with the same case and in the same manner by one and the same body… A “rigid” constitution is one under which certain laws generally known as constitutional or fundamental laws cannot be changed in the same manner as ordinary laws.

Dicey does not agree with Tom Paine’s definition of the word “constitution” because Paine limits it to rigid constitutions. But as Dicey says:

With us, laws therefore are called constitutional because they refer to subjects supposed to affect the fundamental institutions of the state, and not because they are legally more sacred or difficult to change than other laws.

What Dicey is saying is that a law is part of the constitution if it affects the way the state is run, or the way the state can exercise its powers. For example, a law requiring Parliament to call a general election every four years impacts the state’s powers (they do not run indefinitely – just for four years). On the other hand, a law requiring dangerous dogs to be neutered has nothing to do with the powers of the state and is therefore not an element of the constitution.

For Dicey, the fact that our constitutional laws are no more sacred or difficult to change than the Dangerous Dogs Act does not mean that they do not exist. The UK does have a constitution, even if Parliament can change it at will.

So let’s reduce this concept of inflexible and flexible constitutions to a couple of easy definitions:

  1. Flexible constitution – The laws governing the powers of the state can be changed with as much ease as any other law.
  2. Inflexible constitution – The laws governing the powers of the state cannot be changed in the same way as ordinary laws. To alter the constitution requires a special procedure because the constitution is sacred.


List at least three advantages and three disadvantages of both styles of constitution.

Two bits of history – one from France and one from England – are used by Dicey to make the point that rigid constitutions may lead to violent revolutions whereas flexible constitutions allow a process of “gradual innovation” and can avoid revolutions:

In 1851 there was a violent coup d’etat in France. The French people wished to re-elect their president, but the constitution banned his re-election. The French legislature (parliament) attempted to change the constitution to allow the president to be re-elected, but the constitution was inflexible. In order to change the law and allow the re-election, three quarters of MPs had to vote in favour of the change, and this was not possible.

Since the French people saw no other way of electing their chosen candidate within the strict word of the constitution, they overthrew it.

In 1832, the English Parliament passed the Reform Act. This law allowed people in Manchester to send MPs to the House of Commons for the first time, and abolished so-called “rotten boroughs” (constituencies containing very few rich people who were essentially able to buy a seat in the House of Commons). Prior to the passing of the Reform Act, there was a period of great instability and violence which could easily have been channeled into a revolution. Thankfully, Parliament was able to change the constitution with relative ease and prevent an uprising.

The rigidity, in short, of a constitution tends to check gradual innovation; but just because it impedes change, may, under unfavourable circumstances, occasion or provoke revolution.”

(A.V. Dicey)

Edward Snowden

However, the flexible nature of the UK’s constitution is not an absolute blessing. Look, for example, at The Guardian’s reporting on the NSA and GCHQ spying affair. For those not up-to-date with current affairs, The Guardian received classified information from Edward Snowden – a former NSA contractor – proving that the American and British spy agencies have been involved in the widespread collection of everybody’s internet data.

As The Guardian was busy publishing the information and raising the awareness of British citizens, the government forced them to destroy their hard drives. As a result, The Guardian shifted its data to the USA. Why do you think they did that?

In the UK, there is no constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech or of the right of the press to publish information in the public interest. If Parliament wants to pass a law such as, say, the Official Secrets Act, there is nothing to stop them. The constitution is flexible and Parliament can do whatever it likes.

The USA, on the other hand, has a constitutional guarantee that the government cannot interfere with the freedom of the press:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

(First Amendment to the US Constitution)

This sorry tale highlights one of the problems with our unwritten, flexible constitution: We cannot always trust Parliament to secure our best interests, our civil liberties, and our freedom. Perhaps some things – like the freedom of the press – need to be placed beyond the grasp of politicians. Politicians, after all, are concerned with re-election and are unlikely to want damaging secrets leaked out on their watch. Sometimes it is more expedient to do the easy and self-interested thing than the right thing.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

According to Dicey, our constitution comprises three main elements:

  1. Parliamentary Sovereignty
  2. The Rule of Law
  3. Constitutional Conventions

Parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament has the right to make or unmake any law, and there is no other body which can override or set-aside an Act of Parliament.

So, if Parliament wants to pass an Act which allows for the imprisonment without trial of all Northerners, there is nothing stopping it from doing so except, perhaps, European Union laws. But then again, there is nothing stopping Parliament from passing a law to leave the European Union.

The political theorist De Lolme summed up the matter beautifully:

It is a fundamental principle with English lawyers, that Parliament can do everything but make a woman a man, and a man a woman.”

Sir Edward Coke, a 16th to 17th century English judge expressed it this way:

Parliament has an absolute despotic power...It can, in short, do everything that is not naturally impossible…True it is that what the Parliament doth, no authority upon Earth can undo.”

The extent of Parliament’s power was highlighted in 1716, when Parliament decided to extend its duration by an extra four years. At the time, Parliament had been restricted by an Act of 1694 to three years, after which there would have to be an election. But Parliament wanted another four years in power and didn’t fancy having to go through an election, so they passed the Septennial Act, by which the duration of Parliament was extended from three years to seven years.

In the USA, by way of contrast, neither the executive nor the legislature is sovereign. Their powers are strictly limited by the constitution, and judges of the Supreme Court can strike-down government laws if they are unconstitutional.

To sum-up the issue of Parliamentary sovereignty, Dicey has enunciated three key principles:

  1. There is no law which Parliament cannot change.
  2. There is no distinction between constitutional laws and ordinary laws.
  3. Nobody and nothing can pronounce an Act of Parliament void on any grounds whatsoever.

The Rule of Law

Thomas Bingham, a former Law Lord, defined the rule of law in the following way:

All persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts.

Dicey summed it up under two main headings:

  1. No man is punishable or can be made to suffer except for a breach of the law, established by the ordinary courts of the land.
  2. Every man, no matter how powerful he is, is subject to the ordinary law of the land and subject to the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts.

Perhaps the pithy phrase coined by Thomas Fuller is easier to remember and understand:

Be you ever so high, the law is above you.

So what does all of this mean in practice? Perhaps it’s best to explain it by way of a scenario:

If David Cameron stabs Ed Milliband outside the Houses of Parliament, he will be arrested by the police, taken to a police station, charged with murder, and brought before the Crown Court to answer the charges. This is exactly the same process as would be followed if you or I stabbed somebody. David Cameron does not get special treatment by merit of his powerful position. He is not above the laws, he does not have a special trial in a special court administered by special judges with special rules. He is, like you or I, beneath the law and subject to its rules and procedures in exactly the same way as you or I. This scenario illuminates Dicey’s second point – that every man is subject to the law and the courts.

As for Dicey’s first point, which essentially states that “Englishmen are ruled by the law, and by the law alone; a man may with us be punished for a breach of the law, but he can be punished for nothing else,” (A.V. Dicey) the following scenario ought to provide some light:

You are walking past the Houses of Parliament and you spot David Cameron with his wife Samantha enjoying a sunlit picnic. Salivating at the prospect of giving him a piece of your mind, you walk over to him and vent your frustration at his proposed reforms to legal aid. You tell him that his Minister of Justice is an insult to the title, and suggest that he be renamed the Minister for Injustice.

David Cameron is outraged that you have disturbed his picnic and orders a nearby policeman to arrest you for “being a fearful oik and getting on my nerves”.

According to the rule of law, that policeman would have no grounds to arrest you unless you were in breach of a specific law. David Cameron cannot have you arbitrarily arrested and detained just because you’re annoying.

There is also a third element of the rule of law: the law should be accessible. This means, among other things, that the poor ought to be able to access the courts with financial help from the government; and that the law ought to be easily understood.

It is important to understand how essential the legal aid system is to the rule of law. If the government abuses its powers and causes you harm, you have a right to take the government to court and have the case decided by a judge. But if you are unemployed or poor, it is very often the case that you will be unable to afford a lawyer or court fees. Thus, unless you are provided with financial assistance your right to access the courts and the law is an illusion. The rule of law gradually comes to apply only to the well-off and an entire class of people must go without the benefit of law.

Constitutional Conventions

Many of the UK’s constitutional laws can be found in judicial decisions and Acts of Parliament. They can be enforced before a judge, even though Parliament can change them at will.

But some elements of our constitution are completely unwritten and unenforceable in the courts. These are known as constitutional conventions.

Dicey describes these conventions as:

Consisting of customs, practices, maxims or precepts which are not enforced or recognised by the Courts.

In essence, constitutional conventions are rules of political ethics or good manners which Parliament and the Government is expected to adhere to.

For example, there is a long-standing constitutional convention that the Queen will not refuse to put her signature on a new law which has been passed by Parliament. Her power, these days, is strictly ceremonial and she has no right to pick and choose which laws are passed.

However, if the Queen did refuse to sign a new Act of Parliament, you could not take her to court. This is not because the Queen is exempt from the rule of law, but because there is no law to state that she must sign the Act. It is simply an established custom that the Queen will not refuse to give her assent.

These constitutional conventions tend to deal with the way in which the parliament and the government uses its powers. For example, although the government has the right to make international treaties and declare war without consulting Parliament, there is a constitutional convention that the government will consult Parliament and will not ratify a new treaty or declare a new war if it is against the wishes of Parliament.

In the video below, you can see the Prime Minister discussing the proposed military strike against Syria with the House of Commons. Notice his frequent statements that it is “right” that Parliament is being consulted – not that it is a legally enforceable obligation:


  • The United Kingdom’s constitution is flexible – it can be changed in the same way as any other law can be changed.
  • The constitution is based on three key concepts: Parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, and constitutional conventions.
  • Parliament is free to make or unmake any law it chooses. Parliaments under written, inflexible constitutions are not.
  • Nobody is above the law or can appeal to a special court by merit of their powerful position within society.
  • Constitutional conventions cannot be enforced by the courts, but they are strict rules of ethics and good manners.



Before reading this post on causation, it is strongly suggested that you read the earlier posts on actus reus and mens rea. Once you have done so, you will have a solid understanding of the fundamental elements of a criminal offence and will be ready to consider the issue of causation.

If you were a prosecuting barrister in a murder trial, your task list might look something like this:

  1. Prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to cause death or grievous bodily harm.
  2. Prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is responsible for the death of the victim.

Point one covers the mens rea of murder and point two covers the actus reus.

As we have seen in the post on intention, task one will require the prosecuting barrister to prove either that the defendant desired or aimed for the death or serious harm of the victim, or that death or serious bodily harm was a virtually certain consequence of his actions.

Once that has been established, it will be necessary to prove that the defendant caused the death of the victim. In a lot of cases, this will be a relatively straightforward process: consider, for example, the case where Terry points a gun at Jimmy’s head and pulls the trigger. As Terry’s defence council you would have a difficult task in trying to persuade a jury that he didn’t cause Jimmy’s death.

But the issue of causation (defined as “the action of causing or producing”) is not always so straightforward.


John and Lee are enjoying a boozy night out in Liverpool city center on a Friday night. At about 2am, they have a disagreement about who was the better moral philosopher: Bentham or Rawls. Unable to simply agree to disagree, John and Lee have a fight. John is a professional martial artist, trained to black-belt level in Ju Jitsu. He performs a special punch to Lee’s kidney area, causing severe internal bleeding and jeopardising Lee’s life.

A passer-by calls an ambulance to take Lee to the hospital for urgent medical attention. When he arrives at the hospital, Lee is treated by Dr Ahmed who has not slept in three consecutive nights. Dr Ahmed performs emergency treatment at a level well below what is to be expected of a competent doctor and fails to save Lee’s life. Lee expires at 6am.

John is charged with murder. During his trial, his defence council argues that Lee’s death was caused by Dr Ahmed’s appalling medical treatment rather than John’s punch. The barrister calls a consultant doctor to the witness stand to provide evidence that Lee’s life could have been saved but for Dr Ahmed’s poor medical treatment.

Who has caused Lee’s death? Is it John or Dr Ahmed?

As the above task illustrates, the issue of causation is not always an easy one for a jury to resolve. In many cases, there are several competing or contributory causes which lead to a victim’s death and it is necessary for the court to somehow apportion blame. There might be a chain of events leading up to the victim’s death (known as the chain of causation) and something might happen along that chain to absolve the original actor of blame (known as a novus actus interveniens – Latin for “a new act intervenes”).

The aim of this post is to explain how the courts go about that duty. We will see that there are two stages involved in the inquiry:

  1. But for the defendant’s actions, would the death have occurred (factual causation)?
  2. Was the defendant’s actions more than a minimal cause of the victim’s death (legal causation)?

Factual causation

This element of the causation test is relatively simple and easy to apply. It is necessary to ask yourself the following question:

But for the defendant’s actions, would the victim have died?

To simplify this post, we are discussing causation in the context of murder, but it applies equally to any results crime. For example, in a case of grievous bodily harm, you would ask:

But for the defendant’s actions, would the victim have suffered grievous bodily harm?

Let’s consider an example of the but for test in action:

James, Lee, and Scott gang up on Tom in a dark alleyway. They instruct Tom to empty his pockets and hand over his cash. When Tom refuses, Scott stabs him in the leg and Tom dies of blood loss.

We can see that if Scott had not stabbed Tom, then he would not have died. Scott is therefore the factual cause of Tom’s death.

There is, however, a problem with this test:

Consider the case where Sarah invites Kayleigh to her house for a party. On the way to Sarah’s house, Kayleigh is set-upon by Trevor and stabbed to death.

We could easily say that but for Sarah inviting Kayleigh to her house for a party, Kayleigh would not have been walking the streets at that time; therefore Trevor would not have been able to stab Kayleigh; therefore Sarah is a factual cause of Kayleigh’s death.

Clearly then, we cannot call Sarah a criminal simply on the basis that she was a factual cause of Kayleigh’s death. We need something more.

Two cases illustrate the need for factual causation to be established:

In R v Pagett (1983) the defandant took his victim – who was heavily pregnant with his child – from her home by force. The police gave chase and eventually cornered him. The defendant held the victim in front of him as a human shield and began firing a weapon at the police. The police immediately fired back in self-defence and accidentally killed the victim in the crossfire.

The defendant in Pagett was found guilty of manslaughter: but for his actions, the victim would not have been killed.

Conversely, in the case of R v White (1910) the defendant put cyanide in his mother’s milk with the intention of killing her. His mother drank the milk and died during the night.

When the defendant was charged with murder, the court discovered that his mother had died of a heart attack via natural causes, and not because of the poisoned milk. Since her death would have occurred despite the poisoned milk, the defendant could not be said to have caused her death.

Legal causation

The leading case on legal causation is R v Cheshire (1991). In this case, the defendant (D) had an argument with the victim (V) in a chip shop. During the course of the argument, D shot V in the thigh and stomach. V was rushed to the hospital where a doctor inserted a tracheotomy tube to help V breathe, but he did not install the tube properly. Several weeks later, V’s wounds were healing and were no longer threatening his life. Nevertheless, V was having difficulty breathing due to excessive scarring around the site of the tracheotomy tube and he eventually died as a result.

When the case reached the Court of Appeal, D argued that his original act (shooting the victim) was not the cause of death. He relied on expert testimony from a consultant doctor who argued that V died as a result of negligent medical treatment rather than gunshot wounds. Indeed, the gunshot wounds were healing nicely and were no longer a threat to V’s life.

The Court of Appeal, upholding D’s conviction, provided the following direction on causation:

Judges should ask juries the following question: “Has the prosecution proved that the acts of the accused caused the death of the deceased. The accused’s acts need not be the sole, or even the main cause. It is sufficient that his acts contributed significantly to that result.

The Court of Appeal said that it is not the jury’s responsibility to weigh-up competing causes of the death; so, in Cheshire, it was not necessary for the jury to balance the defendant’s gunshot wounds against the doctor’s medical treatment. Even though the main cause of the death was the doctor’s negligent medical treatment, it was still possible that the defendant’s shooting was a legal cause of death. All the jury had to do was ask two questions:

  1. But for the defendant shooting the victim, would he have died?
  2. Was the shooting a substantial cause of the victim’s death?

If both questions could be answered with a “yes”, then the defendant was the cause of the death. If the second question was a “no” then there was a novus actus interveniens, breaking the chain of causation.

In Cheshire the court decided that the defendant was responsible for the victim’s death. In order for negligent medical treatment to act as a novus actus interveniens and break the chain of causation, the following test had to be passed:

Was the treatment so independent of the defendant’s act and so potent in causing death that the jury regards the contribution made by the defendant’s act as insignificant?

What does the law mean by a “substantial cause”?

In the case of R v Cato (1976) the Court of Appeal stated that “substantial” means “not de minimis“.

De minimis is a latin term meaning “of minimum importance“. In modern terms, if an act is de minimis it is an almost irrelevant part of the history leading up to the death.

For example, if Simon punches Graham in the face, causing severe bruising, and Simon’s car is struck by a terrorist’s bomb on the way to the hospital, it might be said that Simon’s act was almost irrelevant. The true cause of Graham’s death is the bomb attack, and against that background the fact that Graham was once punched by Simon seems completely irrelevant.

The later case of R v Kimsey (1996) states the same principle in simpler language. In that case, the defendant had been motor racing with another person and accidentally slammed into the back of his victim. This caused her to swerve into another lane and crash her car, causing her death.

During his trial, the defendant tried to argue that the true cause of his victim’s death was her loss of control over the vehicle. The court rejected this argument, stating that it was enough that there was “more than a slight or trifling link” between him ramming her car and her death.

In summary then, a defendant can be considered the cause of a victim’s death if the death would not have occurred but for his actions, and his actions were more than a slight or trifling cause of the death. The fact that some other event occurs further down the chain of causation is not enough to absolve him of blame unless it is such a significant event that the defendant’s actions become an almost insignificant part of history.

The eggshell skull rule


Read the following scenario and ask yourself whether or not Michael is the cause of Peter’s death:

Michael is walking down the street and he spots his sworn enemy Peter a few yards ahead of him. Michael creeps up behind Peter and punches him in the back of the head, intending to knock him out. Peter suffers from a medical condition which means he has a very thin skull which is easily broken, and Michael is unaware of this. Peter falls to the floor with a shattered skull and dies on the spot.

There are two ways of looking at this scenario. Either we can blame Michael for all the consequences flowing from his actions, however unforeseen they might be; or we can claim that the cause of Peter’s death was his medical condition.

The court was faced with a similar problem in the case of R v Blaue (1975). In this case, the defendant stabbed his victim four times because she refused to have sex with him. His victim happened to be a Jehova’s witness and refused a blood transfusion which could have saved her life.

The defendant in Blaue argued that the cause of his victim’s death was the victim herself. But for her refusal to accept a blood transfusion, she would not have died. The court was not persuaded and stated that:

It has long been a policy of the law that D takes his victim as he finds him.

In other words, if a victim has a psychological or physical condition that makes them especially vulnerable to harm, the defendant is still responsible. So in the above case of Michael and Peter, Michael would be held responsible for Peter’s death.

Can the conduct of a victim break the chain of causation?

If a victim causes himself harm by completely overreacting to a threat by D, can D be held responsible for his death? For example, if Stephen telephones John and threatens to slap him, and as a result John jumps out of his penthouse apartment window and falls to his death, can Stephen be held responsible for John’s death?

In the case of R v Williams (1991) the defendant picked up a hitchhiker and allegedly attempted to rob him. The hitchhiker threw himself out of the moving vehicle in an attempt to escape and was killed by the impact.

When the case reached the Court of Appeal they decided that a reasonably foreseeable response by a victim would not break the chain of causation. If the victim’s response fell outside the range of responses which might be expected from a victim in his situation, allowing for any particular characteristic and for the fact that in the agony of the moment he might act without proper thought, then it would break the chain of causation. In other words, if the victim’s response is completely daft then it will break the chain of causation.

So in the above case of Stephen and John, John’s response was completely disproportionate to the threat. Very few people would expect John to jump out of a penthouse window to escape a slap threat delivered over the telephone.

On the other hand, if Stephen had picked up a hitchhiker named Jane and attempted to pull her clothes off, it could be expected that her response in jumping out of the car at 20mph was reasonable. Stephen would be responsible for her death.


  • Causation is not always straightforwardly a case of “A shoots B and B dies”. There is often a long chain of causation with multiple links contributing to the victim’s death.
  • In order for an act in the middle of the chain to break the chain (a novus actus interveniens) it must be such a significant event that it renders the defendant’s original act a trifling and insignificant part of history.
  • The defendant’s act need not be the sole or even the main cause of the death, provided it was more than a minimal cause of the death.
  • Medical treatment will not break the chain of causation unless it is so independent of the defendant’s acts and so potent in causing death that it renders the defendant’s original act insignificant.
  • A defendant takes his victim as he finds him. All harm flowing from the victim’s weaknesses are attributed to the defendant.
  • The subsequent response of the victim only breaks the chain of causation if it was completely unforeseeable and daft.



In this post, we will be considering another form of mens rea known as recklessness. Recklessness sits on the second tier of mens rea, being the second most serious after intention:

Hierarchy of mens rea

Hierarchy of mens rea

It is strongly suggested that you should read the post on intention and complete the thought exercises and tasks on that page before progressing to this post.

We are going to look at how the courts in England and Wales have struggled to define the concept of recklessness. This is where your understanding of objectivity and subjectivity come into play.

We will track the development of recklessness through to the present day. This development can be represented on a timeline (click the image to enlarge):


The courts began with a subjective definition of recklessness, then swerved into an objective definition, before overruling themselves and returning to a subjective understanding. As the law stands today, recklessness may be defined as: “The conscious taking of an unjustified risk”.

Once you have completed this post, you should have a good understanding of the two most important forms of mens rea: intention and recklessness. This understanding will enable you to begin studying the majority of criminal offences in England and Wales.

Subjective Recklessness

We begin our story in 1957 with the landmark ruling in R v Cunningham (1957). In this case, the defendant had ripped a gas meter off the wall in order to steal the money contained inside it. The immediate consequence of his damage to the gas meter was a dangerous gas leak. The noxious gas seeped into his neighbour’s home and endangered her life. He was charged under S 23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 with administering a noxious thing.

During the defendant’s trial, the judge directed the jury that the offence under section 23 required an element of “wickedness” in his mens rea. The defendant appealed this judgment to the Court of Appeal, who overturned the judgment of the lower court.

The Court of Appeal stated that the offence required recklessness, and went on to provide a definition of that term. Recklessness was a subjective concept: in order to be guilty of an offence requiring recklessness, it most be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant caused a dangerous situation (an objective question) and that the defendant knew there was a risk that he would create a dangerous situation (a subjective question).

To state it tersely, Cunningham imposed a two-part test:

  1. Did the defendant create an obviously dangerous situation (a question of objective fact for the jury to decide)?
  2. Did the defendant realise that his actions might bring about a dangerous situation (a subjective question – what was the defendant’s opinion at the time)?


Apply the subjective Cunningham test to the following scenario:

Nigel is a man of abnormally low intelligence. His boss fires him from his job as a porter at a local hotel because the guests have been complaining that he is unhelpful and forgetful. Enraged at his new-found unemployment, Nigel sets fire to the waste paper bin in his employer’s office before leaving the premises.

The fire in the bin gradually spreads to the entire office, and then the lower floors of the building. By the time the fire brigade arrives, Nigel’s fire has caused £1m pounds worth of damage.

Nigel is arrested by the police and charged with criminal damage. In court, the main question before the jury is whether or not Nigel was aware that by setting fire to the bin he was creating a risk that the lower floors of the hotel would be damaged.

In the case of R v Stephenson (1979) a schizophrenic boy lit a fire in the middle of a haystack to keep himself warm. The haystack caught fire and spread to a nearby property, causing substantial damage.

During the defendant’s trial, the judge directed the jury in the following terms:

First you perhaps want to ask yourselves whether in lighting the fire the accused carried out a deliberate act, and the answer to that one thinks must be yes, because he has said that he lit the fire. Secondly, you may want to ask yourselves whether you regard it or not as an obvious fact that there was some risk of damage, and when the act is the act of lighting a fire inside a straw stack, you may have little difficulty in dealing with the question whether it is an obvious fact that there is some risk of damage. Did he then do that knowing or closing his mind to the obvious fact, in the case from which these words are taken, as I say the reason advanced or the reason found for the man closing his mind to the obvious fact was that he was so angry that he pressed on regardless, and there may be…… all kinds of reasons which make a man close his mind to the obvious fact — among them may be schizophrenia, that he is a schizophrenic.

The defendant appealed to the Court of Appeal, and they quashed (overturned) this conviction. The problem with the trial judge’s direction to the jury was the addition of “closing his mind”. The test should be entirely subjective; if you convict a man because he closed his mind to the risk then you convict him even though he is not subjectively aware that he is creating a risk. In other words, the trial judge erroneously allowed the jury to ignore part 2 of the Cunningham test and reformulate it in the following way:

  1. Did the defendant create an obviously dangerous situation?

So we can see from R v Stephenson that the courts were not prepared to introduce an objective standard of recklessness. They appear to have been aware of that fact that a man should not be guilty of a serious criminal offence unless his mind also be guilty. In the earlier post on actus reus and mens rea, we covered one of the fundamental concepts of criminal law: actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea (an act does not make a man guilty of a crime unless his mind also be guilty).

If you are unaware that you are creating a dangerous situation – even though the vast majority of ordinary people would think it was obvious – you should be guilty of nothing more than stupidity or mental deficiencies.

Objective Recklessness

In 1982 the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) heard the case of MPC v Caldwell (1982). The facts of this case are very similar to the facts in the above task:

The defendant had a grudge against his employer, a hotel owner. One night, he got himself very drunk and set fire to the hotel. He was charged with criminal damage and argued that he had been so drunk at the time that he had no idea he was causing an obvious risk of serious damage.

During his trial, the defendant was convicted of criminal damage and appealed that decision to the House of Lords, claiming that he had given the prospect of serious damage no thought due to his intoxicated state.

Academic opinion states that the courts in this case could have found the defendant guilty under the existing Cunningham test for recklessness. The fact that D had started a fire in the middle of a hotel carries with it such an obvious likelihood of serious damage that the defendant must have realised it. It would have taken an awful lot of persuasion to convince a jury that he remained oblivious to the risk throughout his acts.

Of course, lots of defendants brought before a court on charges of criminal damage – or any other offence requiring recklessness – will insist that they did not appreciate that they were creating a risk. Their thoughts are private and there is no way a jury can read a defendant’s mind. The courts have to examine the facts of each case, and the character of each defendant, in order to decide whether or not they knew they were creating a risk.The fact that a defendant says “I didn’t know I was creating a risk, My Lord!” is not the be all and end all of every trial.

Nonetheless, the House of Lords saw fit to formulate a brand new test for recklessness in Caldwell:

  1. D does an act which in fact creates an obvious risk that property will be destroyed or damaged (objective).
  2. When he does the act he has either not given any thought to the possibility of there being any such risk or he has recognised that there was some risk involved and has nonetheless gone on to do it. (subjective or objective).


Study the two-part tests in both Cunningham and Caldwell and try to identify the key difference.

There is one key difference between the Cunningham and Caldwell tests: the “not given any thought” element.

So, under Caldwell, you could be found guilty of an offence requiring recklessness if you either knew you were creating an obvious risk or gave no thought to the possibility of creating a risk. In other words, the test could be entirely objective. It no longer mattered what the defendant’s beliefs were at the time of the crime.

If you were working for the Police, your questioning of a man suspected of criminal damage could go something like this:

“Were you aware that by starting that fire in the bin to keep warm, you might have caused severe damage to the nearby building?”


“Well, you should have been aware. I’m charging you with criminal damage.”

The ruling in Caldwell was heavily criticised by academics and judges, as well as other commonwealth jurisdictions. Perhaps the strongest suggestion that the test was unfair came from the case of Elliott v C (1983).

In Elliott v C a fourteen year-old girl of very low intelligence entered a shed in the early morning, poured white spirit on the floor, and set it alight. All the evidence suggested that her intelligence was so low that she had no idea she was creating a risk of serious damage to the shed. Nevertheless, judge Robert Goff LJ had to express his extreme unhappiness with the fact that he had no choice but to follow the test laid down in Caldwell and find the young girl guilty of criminal damage.

The result in Elliott v C was nothing less than the punishment of a young girl for the crime of having been born with a mental disability. Her actions might have been morally outrageous when committed by a person of sound mind and intelligence, but only because a person of sound mind and intelligence would have known exactly what they were doing.

Let’s consider a loose analogy: we would morally condemn a human being for murdering and eating another human being, but we would not condemn a lion for doing the same thing. The human being has the cognitive ability to think about what he is doing, to understand that it causes pain and suffering to the victim and her family, and to think morally. The lion does not.

The purpose of this analogy is certainly not to compare the mentally disabled with animals, but to highlight the point that we only pass moral, and surely therefore criminal, judgment on living beings who are capable of exercising their free will in an informed way. All the evidence suggests that the defendant in Elliott v C was not capable of making such a rational decision. So whilst our emotions, and our predisposition to think of all humans as possessing a similar level of consciousness to our own, might wish to condemn the young girl – that moral or criminal condemnation might lack a rational basis.

The Law at Present – Subjective Recklessness

In 2003, the House of Lords made the rare decision to overrule its previous decision in Caldwell. Although the highest court in the land has been able to depart from its earlier precedents since the introduction of the Practice Statement in 1966, it very rarely does so. England and Wales has a strict system of legal rules based on precedent (the idea that like cases should be treated alike), but the highest court in the land may ignore previous judgments if it is in the interests of justice to do so. To state it bluntly, the Supreme Court (formerly known as the House of Lords) may ignore its own previous decisions if they are so bad that they do not fit with modern ideas of justice.

In R v G and another (2003) two boys, aged eleven and twelve, went camping without their parents’ permission. They set fire to some newspapers and thew them beneath a wheelie-bin. The fire spread to the bin and a nearby shop, causing £1m of damage.

During their trial, the two boys were convicted of arson under the Caldwell test for recklessness.

When the case was appealed to the House of Lords, Lord Bingham provided the court’s reasons for overruling its earlier decision in Caldwell: 

  1. It is a fundamental principle of criminal law that conviction of a serious crime should depend on proof of a guilty mind. If you fail to perceive something which is obvious, you are guilty of stupidity or a lack of imagination. Nothing more.
  2. The model used in Caldwell is open to unfairness. It is neither moral nor just to convict someone on the basis of what somebody else would have perceived (this is rather like convicting a lion of murder or rape on the grounds that another living being would have perceived that it was immoral).
  3. Academics, judges, juries, and other countries all think it is unfair.

Lord Bingham replaced the objective rest for recklessness under Caldwell with the following test:

A person acts recklessly with respect to:

  1. A circumstances crime when he is aware of a risk that it exists or will exist.
  2. A results crime when he is aware of a risk that it will occur.

And it is, in the circumstances known to him, unreasonable to take that risk.

So now we are back to subjective recklessness: did the defendant create a risk, and did he appreciate that he was creating a risk?

There is a caveat in the recklessness test under R v G and another: the risk must be one which, in all the circumstances known to the defendant, it was unreasonable to take. This creates a loophole in cases where a defendant takes a reasonable risk. It recognises that life is not always a risk-free endeavor.

For example, if I spot two men attempting to rape a woman in a dark alleyway, it would be reasonable for me to throw a stone at them in order to scare them away. There is a risk that the stone will hit one of them in the face and cause him some harm, but in those circumstances it would be reasonable for me to take that risk.


  • The law of England and Wales began with a subjective definition of recklessness, relying on the defendant’s own beliefs.
  • The House of Lords in Caldwell unnecessarily adopted an objective definition of recklessness which led to widespread criticism.
  • The House of Lords took the rare step of overruling the decision in Caldwell and restoring the law to a subjective definition of recklessness.
  • It is still possible to consciously take a risk, provided that risk is a reasonable one.



As we saw in the overview of actus reus and mens rea, the vast majority of criminal offences in this country require proof of some kind of guilty mind. In general, the law does not punish the morally blameless.

In this post, we are going to take a look at just one form of mens rea, which happens to be the form usually required for more serious crimes such as murder and burglary: intention.

In the grand scheme of mens rea, intention is at the top of the pyramid:


The hierarchy of mens rea

There are two other forms of mens rea known as recklessness and negligence. But even before we begin to look at what these terms mean in the legal profession, we can perhaps see why intention is at the top:


You are a judge sitting in your local Crown Court and you are faced with the following two cases. To which defendant, Ben or Craig, would you give the longer prison sentence?

  1. Ben throws a brick from the balcony of his penthouse apartment. He has spotted his sworn enemy, Chris, standing on the pavement below, and he desires his swift death. The brick is well aimed. It falls directly onto Chris’ head and kills him.
  2. Craig lives in an apartment with Tom. Tom is getting on Craig’s nerves because he never washes the dishes and leaves mountains of rubbish on the worktop. In a fit of rage, Craig picks up a noodle-stained plate and hurls it out of the window. Although it is the middle of the night, Chris is standing on the pavement below enjoying a midnight kebab. The plate hits him on the head and causes his death.

The law recognises that although Ben and Craig have both committed a serious crime, it is only Ben who can be labelled a murderer. Ben intended to kill Chris, whereas Craig was merely reckless.

Once you have understood this post, you will be able to understand and discuss the mens rea requirements of many serious offences. Read in conjunction with the post on actus reus, you’ll have the tools necessary to begin learning about specific offences.

What does ‘intention’ mean?

Consider the following scenario:

Kanan has a three month-old child who refuses to stop crying. She has been crying for three consecutive nights and Kanan has tried everything to satisfy her needs and get her to sleep so he can rest with his wife. He is unsuccessful. On the fourth night, he marches into the baby’s room and throws her against a brick wall. The child subsequently dies of a fractured skull.

Kanan is charged with murder – an offence requiring the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Kanan intended the death or grievous bodily harm  of his child. During his court hearing in Liverpool Crown Court, Kanan breaks down into tears and insists that he did not desire the death of his child.

Would you say that Kanan intended his child to die?

The dictionary equates intention with desire or purpose, so you might conclude that he did not intend the death of the child. You might conclude that Kanan – although he foresaw that death or serious harm was very likely, or almost certain, to result from his actions – was simply reckless.

The law takes a different view.

In the case of R v Woolin (1998) the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) was faced with an identical case to Kanan’s. A man threw his three month-old child against a wall and caused her death. The court ruled that a jury may conclude that the defendant possessed the required intention if the death or grievous bodily harm was virtually certain to occur as a result of his actions, and the defendant foresaw that this was the case.

So the court made it clear that intention and desire are two totally separate, distinct, and different concepts. Even though Woolin did not desire the death of his child, the fact that the death was virtually certain to occur meant that he intended it to occur.

To make things simple, we can split intention into two parts. If you are faced with a problem question in which you must decide whether or not the defendant intended something, then you must ask yourself the following two questions:

  1. Was the actus reus (in the case of murder, death) virtually certain to occur as a result of what the defendant did?
  2. Did the defendant foresee that this was the case?

The first part of the test is objective; the second part is subjective.

A word on objective vs subjective

These are very fancy-sounding words for relatively simple concepts.

Objective simply means a measurable, provable fact. If I were to say that “Widnes is a town in England”, I could produce a map and prove it to you. There is no room for an alternative opinion. There is a right and a wrong answer.

Subjective simply means an opinion or belief. If I were to say that “house music is better than rock music”, you might argue the opposite. There is no way of proving that I am right or you are right. We are both right. For me, house music far surpasses any other genre. For you, rock music reduces house music to a serious of boring bleeps and whistles. The important point is that there is no overall correct answer to this debate. There is room for more than one opinion.


Look at the image below. Write-down five objective points about it and five subjective points:


Some objective points would include: Henry VIII has a beard, he is wearing a hat, he is wearing a necklace, he was the king of England, he employed Thomas Cromwell, he made himself head of the church. These are all facts. If you tried to argue that he was not wearing a hat, you would be incorrect.

Some subjective points would include: the painting is beautiful, he is unattractive, his pose looks stupid. I might disagree with you and you would have no way of proving who is right and who is wrong.

So, moving back to intention. Part one of the test is an objective inquiry: as a matter of fact was it virtually certain that death or serious harm would result (in the case of murder)? Part two of the test is subjective: did the defendant realise that it was virtually certain?

Going for better grades

If you want to aim for a distinction or a 1st in a problem question on intention, it’s worth mentioning the case of Matthews and Alleyne (2003).

In that case, two defendants pushed a man off a bridge knowing that he was unable to swim. The man drowned.

Both men were convicted of murder but they appealed that decision to the Court of Appeal (one step below the Supreme Court in the hierarchy) on the grounds that the trial judge had directed the jury that the virtual certainty rule guaranteed that the defendants intended the victim’s death.

In other words, the judge said something like this to the jury:

If you believe that it was virtually certain that the victim would die as a result of the defendants pushing him off a bridge, then you have no choice but to conclude that the defendants intended to kill him.

When the case reached the Court of Appeal, the judges quashed that decision. They said that the trial judge should not have directed the jury that virtual certainty always equals intention. It might provide very strong evidence that he intended the death, but the jury are free to look at other evidence that might suggest a lack of intention.

Confused? You are not alone. The author of the most authoritative textbook on criminal law has argued that the decision in Matthews and Alleyne (2003) makes it far more difficult to predict the outcome of cases and leaves lots of room for inconsistent decisions.

Essentially, a jury could take a case similar to R v Woolin and reach a completely different decision because other evidence suggests a lack of intent.

If you are tackling a problem question, you can use Matthews and Alleyne (2003) to be much more critical and thoughtful. You can conclude that a guilty verdict is likely due to the result being virtually certain, but can continue to pick out other facts in the question that might suggest a lack of intent.

The art of a good answer to a problem question is to argue as strongly as possible from both sides of the case but to come down on one side. Matthews and Alleyne is therefore a gift to law students because it casts doubt on both the prosecution and defence cases, making it easier to argue from both sides.


  • Intention and desire are two totally different constructs.
  • If the actus reus of a particular offence was virtually certain to occur, then a jury is entitled to infer that you intended it to occur.
  • Matthews and Alleyne (2003) makes it clear that a jury is only entitled to infer that the consequence was intended. They do not have to come to that conclusion.