R v Haigh (2010)

English Criminal Law

R v Haigh
‘Woman with Dead Child’ by Käthe Kollwitz

As is peculiar to criminal law in most jurisdictions, the necessary component for murder requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of the both the act itself (actus reus), and the subjective intention (mens rea) of those accused, and so on this occasion the English criminal courts were left with no option other than to reduce a murder sentence to manslaughter, on grounds that there was simply insufficient evidence to adduce deliberate and unlawful killing, as opposed to what could only be construed as a momentary loss of control on the part of the defendant.

Having been born to unloving and thus dysfunctional parents, the appellant had been later adopted by a well educated and devoted couple when aged only eight years of age, and whose only wish was for her to have a better life than the one she had left behind. Sadly during her adolescence, the appellant was further diagnosed with an IQ of just 74, a personality disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prolonged depression, for which she was on prescribed medication.

After meeting her former partner at the young age of sixteen, the appellant soon became pregnant, and gave birth to their son Billy two years later, and although the two of them remained together for a further three years, her partner was eventually incarcerated for assaulting her; an act which had followed years of his routine verbal and physical abuse towards her both before, and after, their son’s arrival.

At the point of her indictment before the Central Criminal Court, the appellant was reported to have called the ambulance services complaining that her son had stopped breathing, and yet despite clear instructions to perform emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) at the time of the call, her son was pronounced dead almost five hours later; after which it was claimed by court that the appellant had murdered her son by way of asphyxiation, and that there was sufficient medical evidence upon which to sustain the conviction; whereupon the appellant challenged the verdict in the Court of Appeals.

Here, the appellant contended that when reaching summary judgment, the trial court had erroneously accepted circumstantial evidence relating to previous interactions with her son, and which presented her in a poor light, however the court referred to R v Penman, in which the deciding court had held that:

“[W]here it is necessary to place before the jury evidence of part of a continual background of history relevant to the offence charged in the indictment and without the totality of which the account placed before the jury would be incomplete or incomprehensible, then the fact that the whole account involves including evidence establishing the commission of an offence with which the accused is not charged is not of itself a ground for excluding the evidence.”

Thus the first aspect of her appeal was denied, while on a second count, the appellant claimed that lack of witness testimony, and only one physical symptom of trauma, prevented the court from establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that she had intended to murder, or at the very least unlawfully kill her son in the moments before his death.

Here the court was reliant upon the presence of petechial haemorrhaging upon her child’s face, which in most instances was attributable to asphyxial death. However, there was also theoretical argument that prolonged resuscitation could also prove a contributory factor; yet further circumstantial evidence proposed this as incredible, based upon the appellant’s refusal to perform CPR whilst waiting for the ambulance crew to arrive, and via witness testimony citing visible evidence of the symptoms upon their arrival.

In addition to this, there was further evidence of bleeding from the child’s ears, which according to expert medical testimony, had often been found present when addressing traumatic asphyxiation cases in which young children had become trapped in washing lines, a  fact which only exacerbated the suggestion that the appellant had either strangled or smothered her son whilst alone with him, therefore the court held that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to determine that the appellant had unlawfully killed her child.

This left only the third count, which was that a murder conviction was unsafe due to the first two factors, and that there was simply no direct evidence to support the contention that the appellant had wilfully and with malice, killed her child, but that instead, the best the court could hope to rely upon was a manslaughter charge; an argument that caused the court to uphold the third ground of appeal before quashing the murder conviction on grounds that in R v Stacey it had held that:

“[A]n intent to do serious bodily harm may be quickly formed and soon regretted; but so may a less serious intent, simply to stop a child crying by handling him in a way that any responsible adult would realise would cause serious damage or certainly might do so. That would only provide the mental element necessary for manslaughter.”

Barrett v Ministry of Defence (1994)

English Tort Law

Barrett v Ministry of Defence
‘Fra Balestrand’ by Even Ulving

Self-intoxication when subject to unenforced regulatory powers, while seemingly harmless in the early stages, becomes less a voluntary act than an inevitability when boredom and recklessness result in a fatality. Sadly on this occasion, the celebratory rituals of a naval base exposed a regime based upon irresponsibility rather than organised discipline.

In litigation by writ during early 1990, the widow of a naval airman sought damages for negligence arising from a breach of duty of care through the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and the Law Reform Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1934, after her late husband was found dead in his bunk.

In late January 1988, the deceased was celebrating his 30th birthday and pending promotion while stationed at the Barduffos Royal Naval Air Station, Norway, a base known for its leniency towards off-duty drinking, despite recognised preventative guidelines and clear definitions as per s.28 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which read:

“A person is drunk . . . if owing to the influence of alcohol or any drug, whether alone or in combination with any other circumstances, he is unfit to be entrusted with his duty or with any duty which he might be called upon to perform, or behaves in a disorderly manner or in a manner likely to bring discredit on Her Majesty’s service.”

While art.1810 of the Queen’s Regulations for the Royal Navy 1967 also explained how:

“It is the particular duty of all officers, fleet chief petty officers, chief petty officers, petty officers and leading ratings actively to discourage drunkenness, overindulgence in alcohol and drug abuse by naval personnel both on board and ashore. Should a man appear to be suffering from any of these abuses they are immediately to take appropriate action to prevent any likely breaches of discipline, possible injury or fatality, including medical assistance if it is available.”

On the night before his death, the deceased had consumed enough alcohol to lapse into unconsciousness shortly before midnight, after which he was taken to his room and left in the recovery position. It was during the following three hours that he was visited only three times, after which he had vomited and asphyxiated through inhalation of the vomitus. Within the base codes of conduct was guidance for dealing with inebriated servicemen, within which it read:

“(i) Keep the offender out of distance of officers or senior ratings so that he cannot commit himself by striking or by insubordination. Avoid altercation, (ii) Have him examined by the duty M.O. (iii) Should he be in a state of collapse, make sure he does not lie on his back so that he can suffocate if he vomits. See that he is sighted every few minutes.”

In the first hearing, the judge ruled that the appellants had, by virtue of their inability to enforce the regulations and codes of conduct, failed to provide a sufficient duty of care when managing the deceased and awarded damages of around £214,000, with a one-third reduction for the contributory negligence through over-consumption of alcohol.

Presented to the Court of Appeal on grounds of erring in law when comparing the Queen’s Regulations with the Highway Code and thereby over-extending the liability of the Ministry when passing judgment, the Court reexamined the facts, along with the threshold of culpability, whereupon it held that while the appellants had failed to uphold a reasonable standard of care, the choice to drink excessively was undoubtedly the primary cause of death, at which point the Court reversed the proportion of liability in favour of the appellants thus reducing the damages to roughly £71,000.