Discuss the problem of causation in criminal law

Causation in its basest terms is simply the remoteness of the act from the crime. This in itself has caused many problems with regard to legal argument and also subsequent loopholes that appeared within the criminal law. It has been established over many years and tried cases, that there must be a clear and unbroken link, or chain of events, that links the defendant to the criminal act. The first and most important point to be considered is "would the act have occurred anyway? " This is often referred to as the "but for" test.

In simplest terms this means would the consequence of the defendants act have occurred in the same way at the same time 'but for' the defendants actions. If the answer to this question is 'Yes' then the defendant is not guilty of that crime, R. v. White (1910). However, he may still be guilty of a different crime as with White. One question that has to be considered when looking at the question of causation is 'did the defendant actually commit the act? ' If a criminal gets an innocent party to carry out the act of theft, does this exonerate him from prosecution?

Surely if there is no actus reus then there is no crime. However, in R. v. Manley (1844) the courts felt otherwise and that a person will be guilty of the act even if an innocent agent performed the act. Another problem area has revolved around indirect participation in a crime. This problem centres on (D) poisoning (V) by placing the poison in a drink, which he knows (A) is going to sell (V) next. Obviously (A) is totally unaware of the poison and has no part in the crime, but under the strict rules of the actus reus he has committed the act and therefore should be guilty.

But as with above (A) is an innocent agent and is not guilty, while (D) is clearly guilty using Manley as precedent. The next question to be considered is 'did something or someone interfere with the chain of events? ' This question involves the level of care that a victim receives for a criminal injury, if (D) stabs (V) with a knife seriously wounding him and (V) is taken to hospital and allowed to bleed to death in a corridor waiting for doctor (A) to treat him. Then (A) and his level of care would be the direct cause of death, and not (D) stabbing (V), because (A) would be an intervening act which has broken the chain of causation.

R. v. Jordan (1956) This question of an intervening act has further refined in R. v. Smith (1959) which goes on to state that if the stab wound above was the "Operating Cause" of (V)'s death then (D) would still be guilty of murder. However, this had only served to open more questions rather than resolving them. Because as medical science advanced, more and more heroic efforts were being made to preserve life and mistakes and further complications were an inevitable side-effect.

If (V) of the stab wound had died three months after the act due to late onset complications, which occurred after the visible wound had healed then surely (D) would be innocent, as the stab was no longer an operating cause. This was argued in R. v. Cheshire (1991) and the courts upheld Cheshire's conviction and stated "Only in the most exceptional circumstances would the accused be excused from causation by medical treatment. " This opinion was reiterated in R. v. Mellor (1996). This problem was raised in a different arena with the question of artificially sustained life using machines.

The question of whether a doctor who withdrew support from a brain dead patient was guilty of murder. With our example if (V) lost too much blood during the attack from (D) that he was unable to regain consciousness and after testing he was discovered to be brain stem dead. Would this situation allow (D) to be innocent of the crime of murder as he had not committed the act which caused expiration of life? This very issue was raised in two separate cases R. v. Steel and R. v. Malcherek both cases appeared before the House of Lords in 1981 their ruling was "That as a matter of public policy that hospitals be allowed to withdraw support.

" Another question to be considered when addressing the chain of causation is the victim's own conduct. Has the victim's own conduct affected the outcome of the crime? If the victim does something so unpredictable as to be daft; does this make the defendant responsible for the victim's act? In R. v. Horsley (1862) it was decided that this would be unreasonable, and is still known as the daftness test. However this question of the impact of the victim's own actions has been considered further in R. v. Williams and Davis (1996) that the victim's actions had to be within the 'normal' range of response.

This opinion was re-affirmed in R. v. Corbett (1996). Within the question of the victim's own actions, what would the laws stance be on the victim's inaction? If the victim, against better judgement or due to some religious tenet refuses treatment, would our (D) still be guilty of murder, if (V) a devout Jehovah's Witness refused a transfusion? The answer to this is yes, and was illustrated in R. v. Holland (1841) and R. v. Blaue (1975) "you must take the victim as you find them. " The final and un-argued question of causation is one of superfluous act.

Was the defendants' act unnecessary in the light of events as they occurred? So, if we consider our defendant if he had stabbed (V) as part of a gang whom had repeatedly stabbed (V) and our (D) waited until everyone else had finished before he stabbed (V), the question to be considered is; if (V) dies, was it (D)'s stab which killed him because it was unnecessary? Or was he going to die as a result of a previous stab wound? This has as yet to be argued in court, what the outcome would be I have no idea, the only thing I can say for certain is, that I pity the defendants legal team.