R v Williams (Barry Anthony) (1991)

English Criminal Law

Williams (Barry Anthony)
‘Glastonbury Mud at Sunset’ by Kurt Jackson

The importance, if not imperative demonstration of causation lies at the heart of a case in which a jury was led to believe that manslaughter by way of robbery was unquestionably evident, when in fact the circumstances behind the event were such that prevented any reasonable direction, or sustainable conviction thereafter.

In June of 1989, the appellant was driving a vehicle with two passengers when a hitch-hiker attempted to obtain a lift to Glastonbury Festival. Having entered the car, the now deceased was subjected to what was held as a pre-meditated robbery attempt, during which he threw himself from the vehicle at speed, an action that resulted in severe head trauma and his subsequent death.

Upon indictment to the Bristol Crown Court, the appellant and the co-defendants were accused of threatening the victim so as to take all of his money, whereupon he had reluctantly offered to pay a nominal sum to the appellant rather than risk suffering possible violence while travelling inside the car.

Despite a lack of causative evidence aside from the witness testimonies of the three men accused, the presiding judge explained to the jury that:

“[W]hat he was frightened of was robbery, that this [money] was going to be taken from him by force, and the measure of the force can be taken from his reaction to it. The prosecution suggest that if he is prepared to get out of a moving car, then it was a very serious threat involving him in the risk of, as he saw it, serious injury.”

And so when reaching a verdict, the jury held that two of the men were guilty of manslaughter, with the appellant found to have been the one threatening the victim shortly before his death, a decision which was challenged in the Court of Appeal on grounds of misdirection and lack of causation between the actual threat and subsequent death.

Here the court turned to R v Roberts, in which the Court of Appeal had held that:

“[I]f of course the victim does something so “daft,” in the words of the appellant in this case, or so unexpected, not that this particular assailant did not actually foresee it but that no reasonable man could be expected to foresee it, then it is only in a very remote and unreal sense a consequence of his assault, it is really occasioned by a voluntary act on the part of the victim which could not reasonably be foreseen and which breaks the chain of causation between the assault and the harm or injury.”

While in R v Mackie, the court had further held that:

“Where the injuries are fatal, the [escape] attempt must be the natural consequence of an unlawful act and that unlawful act ‘must be such as all sober and reasonable people would inevitably recognise must subject the other person to, at least, the risk of some harm resulting therefrom, albeit not serious harm’….”

A fact that on this occasion, was far from proven, but instead relied upon the urgency of the judge when directing the jury. This translated that the court was unable to sustain the previous verdict of either count, as neither robbery nor manslaughter had been proven beyond any reasonable doubt, therefore the appeal was allowed in full, while the court held that in matters of manslaughter:

“[T]he nature of the threat is of importance in considering both the foreseeability of harm to the victim from the threat and the question whether the deceased’s conduct was proportionate to the threat….”

R v Roberts

English Criminal Law

R v Roberts
Image: ‘Escape’ by Anna Dart

In a case involving assault occasioning actual bodily harm, the defendant appealed on grounds that an irrational act on the part of the alleged victim was sufficient enough to constitute ‘novus actus interveniens’, thereby breaking the chain of causation and defeating the charges held against them.

In spring of 1971, the victim was an engaged twenty-something who having spent some time together at a party, had decided to join the appellant in car journey in the early hours of the morning. It was during the journey that the appellant had misled the victim as to where they were headed, after which he attempted to have sex with her, despite her immediate protestations.

Having then asked to be taken home, the appellant threatened to force her to walk back if she failed to comply with his demands, but not before he had physically assaulted her. It was at this point that he attempted to remove her coat whilst driving at speed, thereby forcing her to open the passenger door and jump out, thus suffering from mild concussion and numerous contusions as a result of her escape.

Having wandered to the nearest house, she was taken in and then safely escorted to hospital for treatment and a three-day stay with lengthy cross-examination. At trial, the judge explained to the jury that in order to find the appellant guilty, they needed to be certain that it was his actions alone that had led to the victim’s injuries, and that his efforts to disrobe her against her will were tantamount to an assault.

Using the exact words:

“[I]f you accept the evidence of the girl in preference to that of the man, that means that there was an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, that means that she did jump out as a direct result of what he was threatening her with, and what he was doing to her, holding her coat, telling her he had beaten up girls who had refused his advances, and that means that through his acts he was in law and in fact responsible for the injuries which were caused to her by her decision, if it can be called that, to get away from his violence, his threats, by jumping out of the car.”

The jury were directed as to ensure they were satisfied that the two acts were inextricably linked, and that unless they could, beyond any reasonable doubt, identify and connect them, the appellant was to escape the charge held under s.47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. It was then found by the jury that despite reservations as to the weight of both parties arguments, the actions of the appellant were directly contributive to the illogical action of the victim and so the charge was upheld.

Upon appeal, the argument presented was that the judge had failed to factor the foreseeability by the appellant of the victim’s actions at the time the offence took place, and that when testing for assault, this aspect of the jury direction was absent. In response, the Court held that as was explained in R v Beech, the judge had rightly asked:

“Will you say whether the conduct of the prisoner amounted to a threat of causing injury to this young woman, was the act of jumping the natural consequence of the conduct of the prisoner, and was the grievous bodily harm the result of the conduct of the prisoner?”

And that at no point in English law had a prerequisite for the defendant’s mindset existed, as to allow such an obligation would immediately nullify any conviction held against them. It was then for this salient reason that the Court dismissed the appeal and secured the original conviction.