Criminal Law: Actus Reus

Actus Reus

Classifications of Crime

General Principles

English law does not generally recognise ‘thought crime’. There needs to be some element of behaviour or physical manifestation of the defendant’s anti-social state of mind. This element of behaviour is known as the actus reus.

Actus reus, law books

The prosecution is obliged to prove all elements of the actus reus before the defendant can be convicted of a crime: R v Deller (1956) 36 Cr App R 184.

Timing, big ben

The prosecution must also prove that the actus reus and mens rea coincided: the defendant must have had a ‘guilty mind’ at the time the actus reus was being carried out: Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority v First-tier Tribunal [2014] EWCA Civ 1554.

Types of Actus Reus

There are four main types of actus reus:

  • Conduct crimes: where the actus reus is the performance of a particular kind of behaviour.
  • Result crimes: where the actus reus is causing some kind of proscribed result.
  • State of affairs crimes: where the actus reus involves the person existing in a defined state of affairs.
  • Crime of omission: where the actus reus is the failure to act or prevent a particular result/state of affairs.

Many crimes encompass multiple kinds of actus reus. For example, murder is both a conduct crime and a result crime. The defendant must do an act which causes death. Rape, meanwhile, is a conduct crime because the defendant must penetrate the victim’s vagina, mouth or anus with their penis. It is also a state of affairs crime because the victim must not be consenting.


Crimes of Omission

The General Rule

As a general rule, there is no liability for failing to act in English law. There is often an exception where the defendant was under a pre-existing duty to act to prevent the harm.

Which Offences Can be Committed by Omission?

Offences of Omission: some offences are worded in terms of omissions, such as the offence failing to provide a police officer a breach sample when obliged to do so.

Offences Against the Person: battery and assault cannot be committed by omission (save where the defendant has created a dangerous situation, see below): Innes v Wylie (1844) 1 Car & Kir 257. There does not appear to be any such limit to the other offences.

Statutory Offences: whether a statutory offence can be committed by omission depends on its construction. In practice, the courts tend to interpret statutes as including omissions unless it specifies that the defendant must ‘do acts’ or something similar: R v Ahmad (1986) 84 Cr App R 64.

Homicide Offences: all homicide offences can be committed by omission: R v Gibbins and Proctor (1918) 13 Cr App R 134.

Which Defendants Owe a Duty to Act?

Assuming the offence can be committed by omission in theory, the prosecution must prove that the defendant owed a duty to act. The following are the recognised category of duty:

Family Relations
children, family

People with a family relation to a vulnerable or dependent individual, such as a child or ill person, tend to owe them a duty to prevent harm: R v Hood [2003] EWCA Crim 2772.

Assumption of Responsibility
responsibility, volunteer

Any person who has voluntarily undertaken to protect or look after a person is under a duty to keep them safe from harm: R v Istan [1893] 1 QB 450. Other behaviour may involve an assumption of responsibility for the safety of others, such as storing dangerous material or engaging in a particular business activity: Winter and Winter [2010] EWCA 1474.

Contractual Duties
Contract, contractual duty

A person who has a duty to act under contract may be criminally liable even when people who are not a party to the contract are harmed as a result of inaction: R v Pittwood (1902) 19 TLR 37.

Creating Dangers
Dangerous explosion

If the defendant does something which imperils others and is aware of the potential danger, he comes under a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent others from being injured by that danger: R v Miller [1983] 2 AC 161.

Distinguishing Acts from Omissions

In some cases, the defendant’s behaviour might be characterised as both an act or an omission. This is most common in medical termination of life cases. When a doctor turns of a life support machine, are they omitting to treat or actively ending the patient’s life? In medical cases, the courts are usually inclined to treat the cessation of treatment as an omission even when it involves positive acts (such as unplugging a life support machine): Airedale National Health Service Trust v Bland [1993] AC 789.

The distinction may turn on what kills the patient. If they are allowed to die of natural causes, their underlying disease or some other circumstance the defendant did not create, this is treated as an omission. If the intervention directly kills the patient (e.g. administering lethal drug), this is normally treated as a positive act.


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Basic Concepts of Criminal Law Quiz

Test yourself on the basic concepts of criminal law, including actus reus, mens rea and causation.

1 / 26

Dee is charged with an offence with a mens rea of negligence. Which of her special characteristics can be attributed to the reasonable person?

2 / 26

Tyrion shoots an air-rifle at Circe. Circe is killed because of her weak heart. A healthy person would not have died. Is Tyrion a legal cause of Circe's death?

 

3 / 26

Battery is a crime of basic intent. True or false?

 

4 / 26

If the defendant does the actus reus against one person, but had the mens rea with respect to another person, is this sufficient to show an offence?

 

5 / 26

Section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is a crime of basic intent. True or false?

 

6 / 26

Most criminal offences can be committed by omission. True or false?

 

7 / 26

Rape is a crime of basic intent. True or false?

 

8 / 26

Tyrion shoots an air-rifle at Circe. Circe is shot in the stomach. She is told by paramedics that she can be saved by a blood transfusion, but she refuses to consent because she is a Jehovah's Witness. She dies. Is Tyrion a legal cause of Circe's death?

 

9 / 26

The actus reus and mens rea of an offence do not need to coincide. True or false?

 

10 / 26

In which two scenarios will an act of a third-party in bringing about a proscribed consequence break the chain of causation between the defendant's acts or omissions and the consequence?

11 / 26

In which of the following three scenarios does the defendant owe a duty to act?

12 / 26

Harold is randomly stopped in the street, holding a perfectly ordinary-looking, sealed package. He is asked whether there are drugs inside. Harold answers that he is not certain, because the package is not his and he found it at a bus-stop. However, Harold also says that he thinks it is likely that the package contains drugs because the wood elves in his garden told him so, and they don't often lie. The package is full of cocaine. The police want to charge him with an offence which stipulates that the defendant has reasonable grounds to suspect they possess drugs. Does Harold meet this criteria?

 

13 / 26

Lacy burns down a house for insurance money, knowing that Eric is inside, handcuffed to a bed and unable to escape. She claims she did not want Eric dead. However, she says she thought that it was very likely that he would die, as she cannot remember whether the key to the handcuffs was left close enough for Eric to reach. Did Lacey intend to kill Eric?

 

14 / 26

Assault is a crime of specific intent. True or false?

 

15 / 26

What must the prosecution prove to establish factual causation?

16 / 26

Section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is a crime of specific intent. True or false?

 

17 / 26

Olaf shoots at Elsa with a rifle, intending to kill her. He misses and breaks an ice sculpture. Can Olaf's mens rea against Elsa be used to complete the offence of criminal damage?

 

18 / 26

Harold is arrested when he is found in possession of a strange package. He is asked whether there are drugs inside, and he answers 'yes'. The package turns out to be full of coriander, because Harold's roommate Claude stole all the drugs and replaced them with herbs before the arrest. Was Harold's state of mind one of knowledge or belief?

 

19 / 26

A defendant is very intoxicated on alcohol when he commits an offence. Does this negate the mens rea for the offence?

 

20 / 26

In which two scenarios will an act of the victim in bringing about a proscribed consequence break the chain of causation between the defendant's acts or omissions and the consequence?

21 / 26

Harold is arrested when he is found in possession of a strange package. He is asked whether there are drugs inside, and he answers that it is very likely, but that he is not sure. The package turns out to be full of cocaine. What is Harold's state of mind with respect to the package?

22 / 26

When is a defendant reckless as to a consequence happening or a circumstance existing?

23 / 26

Murder is a crime of specific intent. True or false?

 

24 / 26

Alfred is a doctor treating Zin, a comatose patient. He turns off her life support machine, and she dies due an inability to breathe unassisted. Has Alfred killed Zin by an act or an omission?

25 / 26

In which two scenarios is the defendant's intoxication relevant to his guilt for an offence?

26 / 26

Lacy burns down a house for insurance money, knowing that Eric is inside, tied to a bed and unable to escape. She claims she did not want Eric dead, but she knew he would certainly die and did not care enough to untie him first. Did Lacey intend to kill Eric?

 

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