Defining Criminal Law

Criminal law is an interesting subject filled with cases, with interesting facts, that will stick to your mind for a very long period of time.

By way of example, you will learn what happened to the guy, who had been squatting in a house and fell asleep on a mattress smoking a cigarette. He was awoken by the, but instead of putting the fire out, he simply got up, went to another room, where he found another mattress and went back to sleep. As a result, the house was substantially damaged by fire. The defendant was convicted of criminal damage. This was the case of Our vs. Miller of 1983.

Or what the court's reasoning was behind, acquitting the defendant for murder in Our versus White of 1910, where the defendant put a potassium cyanide into a drink for his mother with intent to murder. Her mother drank one-fourth of the drink and died, not because of the poison, but of heart attack. The defendant was acquitted of murder and convicted of an attempt to murder. Why, although, the consequence, which the defendant intended occurred he did not cause, it to occur and there was no act Astreus of murder.

While studying criminal law cases and writing an exam, please, keep in mind, that you are not the judge or the jury, your job is to construct criminal liability, not to determine whether the defendant will be convicted.

Avoid using determinate and strong words, such as a will and must and instead, use may or might. It is for the jury or the magistrates to determine, whether the defendant will be convicted. In an assessment, you must put forward arguments for both sides, unless specifically asked to do otherwise. And always remember that the defendant's motive is irrelevant to the question of constructing criminal liability.

This interesting area of law affects us all.

I will now begin to ask you a few simple questions to show you how criminal law interacts with our day-to-day life.

Answer as many questions, as you feel comfortable with.

You do not need to give me an answer. Just answer it for yourself:

  • Have you ever exceeded the speed limit while driving?
  • Have you ever used your mobile phone while waiting in a traffic jam/eating grapes while shopping in a supermarket and before paying for them?
  • Have you ever been mistakenly overpaid by your employer, but said nothing?

Each of these might amount to a criminal offense and carry a sanction.

The vast majority of people have at some stage in their lives being a victim of a crime, witnessed a criminal offense, or committed one.

Actually, many people are able to claim experience from all three perspectives.

Before you dive into the details of the area of law, you need to remember that criminal law is a branch of public law.

A straightforward way of understanding criminal conduct is by viewing it, as conduct which gives rise to legal proceedings through the prospect of state punishment.

In short, the criminal law is enforced by the state, and the infringement of the criminal law are punishable by the state.

Professor Andrew Ashworth defines criminal conduct in the following terms: “There are certain wrongs which are criminal in most jurisdictions, but in general there is no straightforward moral or social test of whether conduct is criminal. The most reliable test is the formal one: is the conduct prohibited on pain of conviction and sentence”.

A question naturally occurs in our mind at this point: “What is a crime?”

Examples range from the obvious offenses against property, such as theft and burglary; offenses against the person, such as murder rape and assault; to road traffic offenses; pollution offenses; offenses against the administration of justice; offenses against public order; and offenses against public morals.

On your criminal law module or on any criminal law course you will be introduced to some of these but not all.

However, you will explore the law relating to some of the most serious and/or common criminal offenses, including murder, manslaughter, non-fatal offenses against the person and theft.

In addition, to these offenses, you will explore a range of both specific and general defenses. For example, loss of control, self-defense, duress and automatism.

You will also encounter a number of key concepts and fundamental principles of criminal liability.

What constitutes criminal behavior varies from country to country and from era to era. For example, homosexuality is a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia. Although, it is not in England and Wales. Similarly, behavior which once amounted to a crime may not be a crime anymore.

Can you think of an example of such conduct that was historically criminal, but no longer a crime.

Some examples are suicide and rape of a woman by her husband. Suicide constituted a criminal offense in England and Wales up until 1961, when the offense was abolished by the Suicide Act 1961. Rape of a woman by her husband was not an offense prior to 1991, but the offense was recognized in the case of Our versus Our 1992.

So, we can safely assert that a crime is conduct, which the law deems to be criminal under the statute, an act of parliament or common law, which is case law.

Conduct can be deemed criminal due to social or moral reasons. Can there be a third reason?

Such conduct is prohibited because it involves the threatening or causing harm to individuals or public interests.

Conduct may be deemed to be criminal due to moral and/or social reasons. Although, a crime may be committed against a specific individual.

A crime is classed as a public wrong because it affects the public at large by making society feel less secure and safe from harm.