R v Lawrence (1982)

English Criminal Law

R v Lawrence
‘Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer’ by Unknown Artist

Reckless driving, while contextually similar to the criminal charge of recklessness, was at the time of this case, still unclear in terms of the mens rea of drivers brought to trial. Unfortunately for the victim’s family, this uncertainty resulted in an acquittal from the offence on grounds of a confused and thereby ineffective, jury.

In 1979, a couple took a visit to their local off-licence in order to purchase some soft drinks for their children. Parking opposite the shop, the mother entered the store, before standing at the kerbside in preparation for crossing back over the road. Moments after blowing her husband a kiss, the victim stepped into the road before being struck by one of two motorcycles, dying instantly, while being carried at speed on the front of the driver’s vehicle.

Upon indictment, the defendant was convicted by a majority jury of reckless driving under s.1 of the Road Traffic Act 1972. There were also questions raised at the time around the exact speed at which the motorcycle was travelling, with opinions ranging from 30 -80mph, resulting in a lengthy trial, and one in which despite an absolute conviction, left the jury seeking clarification as to exactly what reckless driving required, and whether there was a need to appreciate the mindset of the defendant at the time both before, and during, the time of the offence.

Upon appeal, the Court quashed the conviction upon grounds that where uniform agreement could not be found as to how reckless driving existed under the 1972 Act, there could be no established verdict beyond any reasonable doubt. In response, the regional Chief Constable appealed on behalf of the Crown to the House of Lords, while trying to find agreement as to what s.1 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 truly meant.

Referring to the meaning of recklessness as defined by R v Murphy, the courts recognised that:

“A driver is guilty of driving recklessly if he deliberately disregards the obligation to drive with due care and attention or is indifferent as to whether or not he does so and thereby creates a risk of an accident which a driver driving with due care and attention would not create.”

However, in cases such as R v Caldwell, the jury were required to consider not only the actus reus (actions) of the accused, but the mens rea (mindset) prior to the act of arson duly charged. This by convention, had not been something applied during road traffic accidents, therefore the jury in this trial were left confused as to whether an objective evaluation was in itself sufficient, or whether subjective consideration was needed to fully contain the origin of recklessness, as opposed to arguments over which speed the defendant was travelling when the offence occurred.

Though a comprehensive chronology of reckless driving within the road traffic offences, the House held that there needed to be two elements to a conviction of recklessness, namely:

(i) “[T]hat the defendant was in fact driving the vehicle in such a manner as to create an obvious and serious risk of causing physical injury to some other person who might happen to be using the road or of doing substantial damage to property…”

And:

(ii) “[T]hat in driving in that manner the defendant did so without having given any thought to the possibility of there being any such risk or, having recognised that there was some risk involved, had nonetheless gone on to take it.”

Therefore it was left to the jury to determine if, as hypothetical road users themselves, they felt that a defendant did knowingly choose to take charge of a vehicle with the intention to cause harm, as opposed to harm being caused by means beyond their control. This by effect, also rendered the Murphy direction null and void, while paving the way clear for expeditious trials under similar circumstances.

R v Kennedy (2007)

English Criminal Law

R v Kennedy
‘California Poppies’ by Lynda Reyes

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 an 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.

R v Miller (1983)

English Criminal Law

R v Miller
‘Carrying Mattresses’ by Stanley Spencer

Actus reus and mens rea, are two very widely used criminal law maxims that once were essential for the clarification of intention, but sadly over the passage of time, the former has become victim to legal abuses by lawyers seeking to bend a virtue that perhaps warrants review after hundreds of years of application.

In this matter, the accused was a homeless man, who after drinking a reasonable amount of alcohol, entered a vacant home, before taking up occupancy in an empty room. After lighting a cigarette, he then fell asleep on a mattress, at which point the cigarette began to ignite the mattress fibres, thereby causing it to slowly smoulder.

Upon waking, the appellant saw what was happening, but chose to simply get up from the mattress and walk into an adjacent room, before returning to sleep. It was not until the arrival of the local fire brigade, that he awoke again to discover that the room he had since left was now ablaze, and that significant fire damage had resulted from his failure to extinguish the burning mattress.

Upon summary, the appellant stood accused of recklessness causing criminal damage to another’s property, that in turn led to a conviction of arson under s.1(1)(3) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. While under appeal, it was argued that both mens rea and actus reus are key elements to a criminal conviction, and that because the appellant had left the room, he could not be found liable through inaction, as opposed to action (actus reus), while further arguing that he was under no obligation to extinguish the burning mattress, and that his mens rea was ultimately irrelevant to the proceeding fire.

The crux of this defence misdirection is that while actus reus explores the actions of a defendant, the reality of life is that inaction by its own virtue, is an equally destructive process when the party in question can see very clearly that it was his previous actions that initiated the root offence, and that there were sufficient steps available to the defendant to prevent the damage from spreading (including seeking the assistance of third parties to that effect). Therefore, a defence based upon the interpretation of a word does nothing to circumvent the social responsibility of those faced with potentially (yet avoidable) damaging situations.

While the appeal was dismissed, it was again put before the House of Lords who listened intently to a bargaining application for the quashing of an arson charge, before succinctly explaining that with no quarter for doubt, it was evident that the appellant had elected to recklessly avoid his personal obligation to prevent the fire from growing, in favour of distancing himself from his original action, regardless of the foreseeable consequences that followed.

R v Stone; R v Dobinson (1976)

English Criminal Law

R v Stone (John Edward)
‘The Earth (Zemliia)’ by Bohdan Pevny

In this landmark criminal law case, the distinction between indifference to, and perception of risk, are carefully weighed, in order to appreciate that when compared for their relevance to recklessness, the outcome remains the same, despite differing routes to dire consequences.

In 1972, an eccentric sibling moved into the home of her older disabled brother after a falling out with her sister. The terms of the living arrangement was that of a landlord and tenant, in so much that rent was paid and each were free to live their lives independently of one another. While the brother lived with his mistress and housekeeper along with his mentally challenged son, the sister occupied the front room of the home and maintained a high degree of privacy, despite openly suffering from anorexia nervosa (although undiagnosed at the time); a condition that precluded regular meals in favour of a low bodyweight, that in many instances was known to result in premature death, or at best, extreme immobility.

After a period of almost nearly three years, the sister’s health deteriorated to a point that she became permanently bedridden and unable to clean or feed herself. Despite repeated express concerns from the mistress to the brother regards his sister’s condition, there were no attempts made by the either party to extend their efforts in seeking medical help beyond that of unsuccessfully trying to locate her doctor. When matters continued with no real intervention, the now seriously ill woman was eventually found dead in her bed, amidst evidence that no care had been taken to tend to her toiletry needs or physical health requirements, prior to her death.

When reported to the police, the two defendants were summoned and convicted of manslaughter upon grounds of a breach of duty of care through recklessness, whereupon the two parties appealed under the presumption of diminished responsibility. When considered under appeal, the judges found that irrespective of whether the couple claimed to have taken limited steps to get the deceased help, there was insufficient evidence to avoid the conviction of recklessness, as (i) there was adequate foresight of the risk posed to the dying woman while under the assumed care of her brother and mistress, and (ii) that the conduct taken to redress such a risk, was made with little regard to the seriousness of her condition.

Ultimately, and when taken in context, the court felt that it mattered not which route had been taken, only that the destination resulted in her death; and that both parties had been made aware of possible options, yet continued to ignore the duty bestowed upon those assigned the care of a vulnerable person, in particular a close relative with a history of self-neglect and malnutrition.