The domestic criminal law principle of ‘free will’ within the confines of substance abuse, is a question that by extension, remains fraught with uncertainty (with particular regard to Class A substances).
In this drug related death case, the issue before the court was fundamentally one of autonomy versus conjoined culpability.
When two drug users were engaging in social discourse, the now deceased party asked the appellant to prepare a syringe of heroin, so that he might be able to sleep that evening.
After preparing the drug in the manner requested, the appellant left the room, before the deceased self-injected the measured dose.
Minutes afterwards, the user was found breathless, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the nearest hospital.
When heard during the original trial, the appellant was convicted of supplying a class A drug under section 4(1) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and administering the drug under section 23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
These two offences were then tantamount to a charge of manslaughter, and sentence was set at eight years, with five of those under imprisonment.
When the defendant appealed, the judges unflinchingly upheld the conviction; and so it was that when the Criminal Cases Review Commission studied the finer details of the case, it was bought again before the Court of Appeal, where despite strongly presented contentions, it was summarily dismissed and left to the defendant to seek final appeal in the House of Lords.
With a need for investigation surrounding the notion that administration implied contributory action on the part of the supplier, it was eventually made clear that the pervious judges had become victim to self-misdirection, despite distinguishing case citations presented throughout the appeals.
Ultimately the doctrine of novus actus interveniens was sufficiently present enough for the injecting party to have acted under free will, along with an appreciation of the inherent risks associated with heroin abuse.
Therefore, while the first offence (which itself carried a prison sentence) remained intact, the charge of manslaughter could not stand, when held against the perhaps better appreciated evidence now on display, while the House reminded the parties that:
“The criminal law generally assumes the existence of free will.”