R v WOOLLIN

Loss of life arising from recklessness or deliberate action, is one decided by a jury; however, when the scope of murder is extended beyond reasonable bounds, the verdict does not always reflect the evidence.

When a father became enraged to the point of throwing his three-month old son onto a hard surface, his actions resulted in a fractured skull and death. When indicted, the evidence presented to the jury left questions as to the mens rea of the defendant; and so, it was then left to the presiding judge to direct them accordingly.

In previously similar cases, the test for murder relied upon guidance constructed in R v Nedrick, and one which asked that any jury must avoid the implication of intent, unless they could believe that death or serious bodily harm was ‘virtually certain’ as a result of the defendant’s actions.

This approach narrowed the charge of murder, while allowing for anomalies (such as those presented in the evidence) to contribute towards an alternate conviction for manslaughter.

However, on this occasion the judge derogated from the explicitness of the Nedrick test, using instead, guidance that the appellant:

“[M]ust have realised and appreciated when he threw that child that there was a substantial risk that he would cause serious injury to it…”

Here, the jury found the appellant guilty of murder and dismissed the defence of provocation; and so, when taken to the Court of Appeal, the appellant argued that the widening of the mens rea of murder by the judge, amounted to a gross misdirection and error in law.

The Court dismissed the appeal, while holding that the virtual certainty of death or serious bodily harm was one reserved for cases with limited evidence relating to the actus reus of the accused; and that on this occasion there was sufficient grounds for a widening of the meaning of murderous intent.

However, questions were raised around the need for jury direction in the absence of compelling evidence; in particular whether the defendant intended to kill or cause serious bodily harm, and whether it was virtually certain that in such events, death or serious bodily harm would occur, and that it had been appreciated by the defendant at the time of the act.

Having been brought before the House of Lords, the integrity of the Nedrick test was scrutinised, along with the relevance of judicial direction in matters where the balancing of evidence, and the mens rea of the defendant were pivotal to a fair conviction, as outlined in section 8 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967.

Here, it was found that in the twelve years that the courts had relied upon the Nedrick test, there had been no difficulties in it’s application due to it’s simplicity; and despite some shortcomings in terrorism cases, the test itself was adaptable enough to withstand changes in circumstance.

It was also agreed that by widening the scope of the test through the misuse of words, the trial judge had himself been reckless in his misdirection, and that the conviction was to be quashed in lieu of a manslaughter charge, while further reminding the parties that:

“A jury cannot be expected to absorb and apply a direction which attempts to deal with every situation which might conceivably arise.”