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 s.4(1) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and administering the drug under s.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 it so was that when the Criminal Cases Review Commission studied the finer details of the case that 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 and appreciation of the inherent risks associated with heroin abuse; and that 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.
“The Court of Appeal was wrong to conclude that, on the fact, the appellant was liable as a principal for joint engagement in the act of administering the dug.”
“The criminal law generally assumes the existence of free will.”
“…generally speaking, informed adults of sound mind are treated as autonomous beings able to make their own decisions how they will act…”
“Questions of causation frequently arise in many areas of the law, but causation is not a single, unvarying concept to be mechanically applied without regard to the context in which the question arises.”
“…that the deceased freely and voluntarily administered the injection to himself, knowing what it was, is fatal to any contention that the appellant caused the heroin to be administered to the deceased out taken by him.”
“At the trial of the present appellant there was no consideration of section 23 and the trial judge effectively stopped defence counsel submitting to the jury that the appellant had not caused the death of the deceased.”
“…the court gave no detailed consideration to the terms of section 23, and it is now, accepted that the deceased’s injection of himself was not an unlawful act.”