Criminal Law: Causation

Causation

Factual Causation

The ‘But For’ Test

Some crimes require the defendant to cause a particular result. If this is the case, the prosecution must prove factual and legal causation. Factual causation exists if but for the defendant’s act or omission, the result would not have come about: R v White [1910] 2 KB 124. The defendant’s acts do not to be the sole cause, or even the main cause, of the proscribed result: R v Hennigan [1971] 3 All ER 133.


Legal Causation

‘Breaks in Causation’

Certain subsequent events may ‘break the chain of causation’ between the defendant’s action and the proscribed result. In these circumstances, the defendant is not taken to have caused the result in law.

Act of a Third Party
Car pile up

Reasonable or foreseeable third-party actions will not break causation: R v Pagett (1983) 76 Cr App R 279. Completely unforeseeable acts, or fully informed, unreasonable and voluntary acts of third parties may break causation, however: R v Latif [1996] 2 Cr App r 92. Generally, the criminal law is far less willing than tort to find that the act of third parties (even negligent or deliberate acts) are unforeseeable or unreasonable: R v Benge (1865) 4 F&F 504; R v Warburton & Hubbersty [2006] EWCA Crim 627.

Act of the Claimant
Person rock climbing, dangerous

If the victim’s actions are a natural consequence of the defendant’s actions, they will not break causation: R v Roberts [1971] EWCA Crim 4; R v Pitts (1842) Car & M 284. Only completely ‘daft’ or ‘unexpected’ actions in the circumstances will break causation: R v Williams & Davis [1992] Crim LR 198. Free, informed and voluntary actions of a capable victim (particularly in drug-taking cases) will break the chain of causation, however: R v Kennedy (No 2) [2007] UKHL 38. However, not even outright suicide will be ‘voluntary’ if the defendant’s actions provide a strong reason or compulsion for it: R v Wallace [2018] EWCA Crim 690.

Act of Nature
act of nature, lightning bolt

A completely unforeseeable non-human act may break the chain of causation if it is not a natural result of what the defendant did. For example, a defendant is a legal cause of death if he knocks the victim unconscious and leaves him in a puddle to drown, but not if the building the unconscious victim is left in subsequently collapses on his head for unrelated reasons: R v Hallet [1969] SASR 141.

The Eggshell Skull Rule

The defendant must take the victim as they find them. This has two implications:

The result does not need to be foreseeable. This means that if the claimant has a special condition that makes them more likely to suffer harm (or more serious harm) than a normal person, the defendant is still taken to cause the harm: R v Hayward (1908) 21 Cox 692.

When determining if the claimant’s acts break the chain of causation, actions which are due to the claimant’s particular beliefs, values or religious doctrines are unlikely to be considered completely daft or unexpected: R v Holland (1841) 2 Mood & R 351; R v Blaue [1975] 1 WLR 1411.

The Defendant’s Contribution Must be an ‘Operative’ Cause

If the defendant’s contribution is merely background setting, they are not a legal cause.

For example, the defendant invites the victim to his house. The victim is killed in a car accident on the way. The defendant is not a legal cause of death even though without their invitation the victim would be alive.

Making the distinction between operative and non-operative causes can be difficult and causes particular problems in negligent medical treatment cases:

For example, in R v Jordan (1956) 40 Cr App E 152, the victim died of pneumonia more than a week after being stabbed by the defendant. At the time of death, the stab wounds had started to heal. The cause of the pneumonia was the negligent administration of fluids and antibiotics which the victim was allergic to. The defendant’s act was deemed not to be an operative cause of death.

By contrast, in R v Smith [1959] 2 QB 35, the defendant stabbed the victim. The victim was dropped several times on the way to receive medical treatment. The doctor then failed to properly diagnose the victim’s injuries, meaning he was not treated for a punctured lung. The victim probably would have survived if he had been given proper medical treatment. Nevertheless, the defendant was found to have caused his death since the victim died of the punctured lung.

In R v Cheshire [1991] 1 WLR 844, the defendant shot the victim in the leg and stomach. The victim developed respiratory problems in hospital and was given a tracheotomy as a result. He later died from complications from the tracheotomy, at a time when his shooting wounds were healing. The defendant’s shooting was deemed to be an operative cause of death. This was because the subsequent medical treatment was not ‘so potent’ that it made the defendant’s contribution unimportant.

The Cause Must Be ‘Culpable’

The act which the prosecution relies on as being the ’cause’ must be culpable: R v Dalloway (1847) 2 Cox CC 273. This does not mean that the defendant must have acted deliberately or negligently, merely that there is something about what the defendant did which was ‘open to proper criticism’: R v Hughes [2013] UKSC 56.


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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

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

 

3 / 26

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

 

4 / 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?

5 / 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?

6 / 26

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

 

7 / 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?

 

8 / 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?

 

9 / 26

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

10 / 26

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

11 / 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?

 

12 / 26

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

 

13 / 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?

 

14 / 26

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

 

15 / 26

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

16 / 26

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

 

17 / 26

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

 

18 / 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?

 

19 / 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?

 

20 / 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?

 

21 / 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?

 

22 / 26

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

 

23 / 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?

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

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

 

26 / 26

What must the prosecution prove to establish factual causation?

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