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.

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 Blaue, 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 Wilcockwhere 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.