Criminal Law Terminology

Insight | February 2017

Criminal Law Terminology
Image: ‘Empty Kingdom’ by Sean Phillips

A crime can be defined both as any wrongful act causing harm to another person, or damage to another’s property, and any act that contravenes those proscribed by common law or statute. Similarly, criminal acts are actions requiring either rehabilitation of the offender and compensation for damages to property, or the victim’s psychological state,  which can also include incarceration in more serious cases (this can also be observed from a moral perspective inasmuch as actions that violate the rights and duties owed to the community), while the perception of criminal behaviour is also subject to various political and social factors, therefore can vary across nations.

A criminal definition is necessary in order to help distinguish a moral wrong from a civil wrong, and so criminal activity tends to be associated with some element of punishment when bought to trial, whereas a civil wrong is not considered an act of deviance, but a conflict of perspectives or contractual obligations.

The purpose of criminal law is to distinguish between the two previously mentioned wrongs, in order to help protect the public and the State from acts of aggression, or violent rebuttal; while the objectives of criminal sentencing are to allow an individual the opportunity to reflect upon any criminal act undertaken, and to help the public observe justice being done when miscarriages occur. In addition, the larger aim of sentencing is to maintain public order and minimise anxiety that could adversely affect productivity, and to help reduce crime through deviant punishment and protection of the public. Shown below are some common phrases used within criminal law:

Thin Skull Rule

This phrase means that despite any unforeseen vulnerabilities in a victim being bought to light during trial (or at case preparation stage), the amount of punishment or (tortious) compensation would remain as full as it would be should, or had, the victims been ‘normal’. An excellent case for this is R v Hayward, where the victim to a brutal domestic beating died of natural causes, yet the offender was held criminally liable.

Act of God (or Naturally Occurring Interventions)

These would constitute naturally occurring disasters such as floods, storms, bolts of lightening etc. that prevent criminal liability being placed upon a person.

Third-Party Interventions

Typically a lawsuit procedure, where the court allows a third person not originally part of the case, to become involved through joining either the plaintiff or defendant.

Medical Interventions

A phrase used to describe a medical procedure serving as an intervening act, which could break the chain of causality when establishing the cause of a victim’s death or serious injury. A case reference for this would be R v Smith, which involved the dropping of an injured solider on the way to hospital, an act alleged to have contributed to his death.

Breaking the Chain of Causation

A process whereby the manifestation of a victim’s actions or moral beliefs, exacerbate the wounding (and in some cases instigation of a death). A useful case for this is R v Dear, where a Jehova’s witness refused a blood transfusion after being stabbed, thereby legally dying as a result of blood loss, instead of knife inflicted wounds.

Defendants Conduct Culpable

A term used where a defendant engages in set of behaviours or actions, that in and of themselves, bring harm to them, without the actions or inactions of another. In this scenario, a person or defendant cannot readily portray themselves as a victim, rather lacking mental capacity or sound mind and judgment. A case example would be R v Williams, where the victim was killed by stepping in front of a moving vehicle driven by an uninsured and unqualified driver, resulting in their criminal liability.

Actus Reus

The part of a crime that is concerned with identifying the conduct that criminal law deems harmful. It also describes what the defendant must be proven to have done (or failed to do) in circumstances that produce consequences attributable to moral guilt. The case of R v Miller provides that when waking up drunk to find his lit cigarette had started a fire in the home in which he was staying, the defendant simply moved rooms, rather than attempting to extinguish the fire; translating that his actions resulted in an act of arson.

Mens Rea

A term used to describe the element in a criminal offence relating to the defendant’s mental state. Examples of mens rea include intention, recklessness, negligence, dishonesty or knowledge. This legal principle plays a crucial role in ensuring that only blameworthy defendants are punished for their crimes, however, mens rea is not equivalent to moral guilt. A useful case example is Collins v Wilcock, where it was found that when attempting to question a member of the public, a police officer grabbed their arm with the aim of physically restraining and harming them, as opposed to getting their attention.

Intention

How a defendant determines a consequence of his actions when he acts with the aim, or purpose, of producing that consequence. The case of R v Haigh showed that while the appeal jury had clear evidence a mother had intended to smother her child, a lack of mens rea reduced the verdict from murder to manslaughter.

Recklessness

When a defendant was aware of a risk attached to their conduct, and that the risk was an unreasonable one to take. A useful case for this is R v G, where the judges held that a minor was not capable of possessing the reasoning ability of an adult.

Negligence

When a defendant has behaved in way a reasonable person would not (see also recklessness). A perhaps extreme example of this is R v Adomako, where an anaesthetist failed to observe an oxygen supply disconnection that resulted in his patient’s death.

Novus Actus Interveniens 

A term used to describe a break in the chain of causation bought about by a new action, that alters the effect of injury (or death) of a person in such a way that alters the identity of the person culpable; or a free and voluntary act of a third party, that renders the original act a substantial and operating cause of injury or death. An example of this would be R v Jordan, where a stabbing victim had a fatal allergic reaction to a hospital administered drug, therefore altering the cause of injury and subsequent death; and in R v Kennedy, where the supply of heroin did not constitute liability for a users death.

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher, scholar, researcher, humanist and humble foodie...

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