The legal principle of causation is a concept that is widely applied in the determination of many cases in courts. The basis of its application and operation in criminal law relies on establishing the relationship between the conduct of the accused and the effect that results from the conduct such as injury or even death. When applying this principle, criminal law also takes into account the fact that a certain subjective state of mind or “mens rea” of the accused must have been in existence when the crime or offence was committed.
Therefore, it not only focuses on the relationship that exist between the conduct and the resultant effect but also combines this with the state of mind of the defendant so as to determine guilt or innocence. One distinctive characteristic of the principle of causation is that it is only applicable after a result has been achieved from a certain action or conduct and this makes it immaterial when it comes to deciding crimes of seeking or preparing to commit another crime also known as inchoate crime such as conspiracy.
It is therefore the objective of this paper to describe the legal principle of causation in criminal law with the aim of bringing a clear understanding of where and how it is applied in determination of cases. 2. 0 The place of mens rea in causation The principles of criminal law require the prosecution to prove that a particular effect such as an injury or death resulted from the actions of the defendant. Proving certain facts beyond reasonable doubt is not always easy especially when dealing with cases of homicide in which the prosecutor is required to prove that the defendant caused the demise of another person.
In the event that a direct relationship is established between the actions of the defendant and the resulting harm, then an element of causation also comes into play. Sometimes, causation is simply a matter of establishing whether physical force was used by the defendant that according to the laws of nature led to a certain effect or result (La Fond & Singer, 2007). Behind the principle of causation is the element of mens rea or the state of mind of the defendant which plays an important role in determining what the intentions of the defendant were at the time the harm was done.
For instance, a professional killer may shoot a victim in the head who then dies. In order to prove that the defendant’s conduct caused the proscribed result, an autopsy can be done by a pathologist who then testifies in court that the bullet fired by the defendant caused massive brain damage which consequently caused the death of the victim. From such evidence, the defendant has to bear the criminal responsibility for causing the death since his actions led to the death in exactly the intended manner (La Fond & Singer, 2007).
However, sometimes the unexpected may happen in that the defendant may not have intended or anticipated the harm or may be the harm occurs in a manner that is improbable. For instance a nurse who innocently administers a poison to a patient may certainly be said to have caused the death of the patient in medical sense while at the same time a nurse who is aware that the drug is poisonous and goes ahead and administers it also causes the death in that sense. In the absence of mens rea, the guilty knowledge is ignored in the second case.
However, the principle of causality incorporates this aspect of the state of mind of the actor. In the first case, the innocent behavior of the nurse in principle is not considered as the cause of the patient’s death since she did not cause the death in the means-end sense (Hall, 2005). This is also the perspective that is used to interpret criminal liability or the legal cause in that a criminal is regarded as a legal cause if he is proved to be the author of a crime which implies that he had the full knowledge of what he was doing.
In this case, mens rea is an important reference to get the meaning behind it. The mens rea aspect can be captured in some court rulings in which despite the fact that the action was sufficient and adequate to have caused the harm in question, the defendant is nevertheless regarded as being not the legal cause and the reason stated to this effect is that the conduct did not express the mens rea required that is the mind of the defendant is not guilty despite the action.
In such occasions, the courts are basically defining and explaining the legal principle of causation. 3. 0 The place of causation in criminal law policy It is much of a debate as to the question of whether criminal law has to be strictly result oriented especially when it comes to the principle of causation. For instance, a defendant who plans and has full intentions of killing another and does all that is possible to accomplish the mission but eventually fails to cause the intended harm is less punishable than if the harm is done.
Such strictness in terms of causation-oriented grading system of causation is the source of the debate among utilitarians and retributivists. On one hand utilitarians on the topic of punishment are of the opinion that this causation-oriented scheme is justified since it gives criminals an incentive of not trying to commit the intended crime in future. One the other hand, retributivists base their argument on “moral luck” in which the moral blameworthiness of a defendant increases with success in the plans to commit crime.
Whatever the reasons might be given, causation basically depends on voluntariness of the action in addition to mens rea in establishing criminal liability (law. jrank. org, 2010). 4. 0 Causation in establishing criminal liability Causation in principle entails conducting an enquiry to establish whether the harm or damage in question was as a result of the conduct or actions of the defendant or omission to act accordingly. Therefore, in all crimes that generate result, there must be the establishment of causation.
In determining criminal liability, causation is divided into legal causation and factual causation. The starting point in the process of establishing liability involves factual causation in which the “but for” test is applied. In cases where there are no factors that complicate issues, factual causation is enough to establish causation but in some instances legal causation is essential especially in situations where the result of a crime is caused by a culpable act. This basically means that the defendant’s action is not entirely to blame for the harm that occurred.
On the other hand, in establishing factual causation, the “but for” test asks the question “but for the actions of the defendant, would the result have occurred? ” (e-lawresources. co. uk, 2009). The defendant is not liable if the answer is yes, which implies that the result or harm would still have occurred even in the absence of the actions of the defendant. The defendant is liable in case the answer is found to be no since it implies that the action of the defendant is fully to blame or is the factual cause of the result. 5. 0 Establishing Legal Causation 5.
1 Omission liability There are interesting philosophical questions with regard to omission liability as to whether it is noncausal or can be used to satisfy the legal requirement of causation. Omission liability is the liability for not doing a certain act that is required by the law. There is a sense of truth in the reasoning that a defendant who fails to perform a certain act that is required of him by the law is not liable for causing the harm that the omission would have prevented in the first place but rather liability is justified for not preventing the harm (law.
jrank. org, 2010) However still, an omission in the real sense prevents to disrupt the forces or factors that are work and as a result of the defendant not intervening, a harm that was avoidable results and therefore the defendant is liable since the omission is the cause (La Fond & Singer, 2007). 5. 2 Proximate Cause The doctrine that the law uses in deciding whether a criminal is liable for causing a particular harm in spite of an intervening cause which contributed to the result is called the proximate cause.
There are two conditions that must be there to satisfy proximate cause. Firstly, the intervening cause must be proved to be not too remote or accidental so that the defendant is fairly held responsible. Secondly, the intervening cause must be proved to have been reasonably foreseeable if not intended. However, due to the broadness of proximate cause, some jurisdictions prefer to use only direct cause to decide criminal liability (La Fond & Singer, 2007). 5. 3 Concurrent Causation
This aspect used in establishing causation occurs when two causes in fact that are independent of each other concurrently and is established that either of them had the potential to cause the result by itself. Therefore the cause in fact requirement may not have to be met. For instance, if two members of a gang with the intention of killing shoot the same victim at the same time and the victim dies as a result of the inflicted wound, each is considered the cause of the death.
If one of the defendants did not intentionally shoot the victim, it is still a concurrent causation. Therefore each of the defendant’s conduct is the “cause in fact” since the intention of both was to kill the victim in addition to the fact that the conduct of either of them would still have caused the proscribed result. However, criminal law gives no excuse to neither of them simply because the conduct of another actor led to the same harm (La Fond & Singer, 2007). 5. 4 Direct Cause
In this element of causation, the only thing that is considered to have cause the harm in question is entirely the conduct of the defendant and therefore there is absolutely no other casually connected act that can be said to have also contributed to the result. In this case, the action of the defendant is the direct cause of the harm with no one else even partially assisting in causing the harm. Direct causation always fully satisfies proximate cause requirement since the defendant brings the harm in precisely the intended manner (La Fond & Singer, 2007). 6. 0 Conclusion
The principle of causation in criminal law is widely applied since it entails establishing the liability of the defendant to the punishment that is legally proscribed to be administered to that particular crime. Its reliance on clear evidence so as to know exactly what caused certain harm makes it very effective in administration of justice. In establishing causation, there are many facets of this principle which has to be considered including proximate cause, direct causation, concurrent causation and omission and each is treated differently to arrive at a concrete judgment.
References e-lawresources. co. uk. (2009). Causation in criminal liability. Retrieved August 16, 2010, from http://www. e-lawresources. co. uk/Causation-in-criminal-liability. php Hall, J. (2005). General Principles Of Criminal Law. New York: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. La Fond, J. Q. , & Singer, R. G. (2007). Criminal law: examples & explanations. New York: Aspen Publishers Online. law. jrank. org. (2010). Causation – Role Of Causation In The Criminal Law. Retrieved August 16, 2010, from http://law. jrank. org/pages/623/Causation-Role-causation-in-criminal-law. html