Mens rea

The Latin phrase “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea” implies that an act does not make one guilty unless the mind is also. Thus, the meaning behind mens rea lies within the mental element of the defendant in a crime. H. L. A. Hart states that “what is crucial is that those whom we punish should have had, when they acted, the normal capacities, physical and mental, for doing what the law requires and abstaining form what it forbids, and a fair opportunity to exercise these capacities.

Where these capacities and opportunities are absent, … the moral protest is that it is morally wrong to punish because ‘he could not have helped it’ or ‘he could not have done otherwise’ or ‘he had no real choice’. ” Intention is an element of mens rea and can be divided into two parts, namely, direct and oblique intention. Direct intention concludes that a defendant directly desires the consequence of their actions. From the case of Calhaem, we can see that the defendant had clearly intended to kill the victim despite his monetary motivation to commit the act.

In Byrne, the defendant had an impulse and intention to commit murder despite his sadistic psychopath behaviour. He enjoyed the act of killing another. However, the case of State v Sikora denies any form of desire to kill in the defendant due to his psychodynamic state of mind. This finding is in conflict with the conclusion in Byrne. Francis J. on Sikora is of the opinion that “if the law were to accept a medical doctrine, as established by Dr Galen on the case, the legal doctrine of mens rea would all but disappear from the law and criminal responsibility would vanish”.

Conclusively, whatever the mental health of the defendant, an intention is still sufficient mens rea of a crime. Oblique intention is whereby the defendant foresees the consequence of his actions as virtually certain but still acts anyway. The degree of probability that the defendant foresees the consequence of his actions is known as the objective test. However, subjective tests are concerned solely with the defendant’s state of mind. In DPP v Smith, the defendant was convicted of murder.

The jury found that any reasonable man would know that a person falling off a moving car would result in serious injuries or death. They were of the opinion that the defendant’s state of mind was sufficient mens rea. As with the case of DPP v Hyam, the defendant was convicted of murder since she foresaw that lighting the post box on fire would probably result in the house burning down and killing its inhabitants. However, the decision in DPP v Hyam was wrongly passed as it was decided after the approval of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, which was intended to amend the decision in DPP v Smith.

It stated that “a court or jury, in determining whether a person has committed an offence, shall not be bound in law to infer that he intended or foresaw a result of his actions by reason only of its being a natural and probable consequence of those actions; but shall decide whether he did intend or foresee that result by reference to all the evidence, drawing such inferences from the evidence as appear proper in the circumstances”. The decision in DPP v Hyam was then corrected in R v Moloney, which adhered to follow the natural consequence of a case.

Lord Bridge’s oblique intent test questioned, “first, was death or really serious injury in a murder case (or whatever relevant consequence must be proved to have been intended in any other case) a natural consequence of the defendant’s voluntary act? Secondly, did the defendant foresee that consequence as being a natural consequence of his act? The jury should then be told that if they answer yes to both questions it is a proper inference for them to draw that he intended that consequence. “

This test was considered in R v Hancock and Shankland, as the degree of probability imposed was giving a lot of problems to establish the defendant’s mens rea. Court of Appeal reviewed these two cases and formed a new direction in R v Nedrick, as stated by Lord Lane C. J. , “where the jury is not entitled to infer an intention unless they are sure that death or grievous bodily harm was a virtual certainty (barring some unforeseen intervention) as a result of the defendant’s actions and that the defendant appreciated that such was the case”. Foresight became the main motivation to convict a defendant.

Authority of this new test was then questioned in R v Woollin where the House of Lords gave their approval with certain adjustments. Lord Steyn formed the current test on oblique intent, “where the jury is not entitled to find an intention unless they are sure that death or grievous bodily harm was a virtual certainty (barring some unforeseen intervention) as a result of the defendant’s actions and that the defendant appreciated that such was the case”. Thus, for mens rea to be found, the jury needs to analyse if the outcome of the actions were expected and also the defendant’s state of mind.

Recklessness is a less culpable form of mens rea compared to intention as it involves the foresight of possible outcomes instead of virtually certain ones. R v Cunningham 1957 held that a subjective test should be applied to determine recklessness. This formed the Cunningham Recklessness, which posted the argument of whether the defendant was aware of foreseeing the harm, that in fact occurred, would have occurred from his actions, but continued with the act regardless of the risk involved. In Cunningham, the defendant foresaw and was aware of the risk of ripping the gas metre and the leakage causing death but he continued to do so anyway.

Due to Cunningham’s many problems, the case of MPC v Caldwell then gave rise to the Caldwell Recklessness, which took an objective approach. According to the doctrine of this approach, “a person is reckless as to whether property is destroyed or damaged where he does an act which in fact creates an obvious risk that property will be destroyed or damaged and when he does the act he either has not given any thought to the possibility of there being any such risk or has recognised that there was some risk involved and has nonetheless gone on to do it”. The appellant in the case was in a drunken state when he carried out his actions.

His state of mind did not show mens rea as he was unaware of his actions. This form of recklessness did not last very long due to many problems and was overruled by the House of Lords in R v G and Another that applied the subjective approach. The current subjective standard that applies to criminal damage states that, “a person acts recklessly within the meaning of section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 with respect to a circumstance when he is aware of a risk that it exists or will exist; a result when he is aware of a risk that it will occur; and it is, in the circumstances known to him, unreasonable to take the risk”.

Thus, the subjective approach became the basis for substantiating mens rea. Negligence refers to a person who fails to acknowledge consequences that would have been acknowledged by a reasonable person. In rare criminal offences, negligence can be sufficient mens rea, observing the objective standard. An exception of negligence is manslaughter, where Adomako is the leading case. The appellant failed to spot the disconnection of the oxygen pipe attached to the victim and was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter.

The fact that the defendant was “grossly negligent” showed mens rea. This argument was firmly formed earlier in Andrews v DPP 1937. Strict liability offences are crimes, which do not necessarily require mens rea in an actus reus. Strict liability can mislead the meaning of mens rea. Absolute liability contains no mens rea at all. In Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent, the defendant was found drunk in a hospital hallway and was removed by the police. He was charged for being found drunk in a highway.

In his drunken state, the defendant clearly did not know what he was doing and thus committed the actus reus without mens rea. The case proved that the state of mind was not important to prove criminal liability. Strict liability however only requires partial mens rea. The defendant in Prince knew the girl was in possession of her father but thought that she was over 16. He was found guilty as he intended to remove the girl from her father’s possession despite not knowing her actual age.

Contrary to that, the defendant in Hibbert did not know that the girl was in her father’s custody and was acquitted since he had no mens rea to commit the act of removing her although her age was one of strict liability offences. In conclusion, most of the aspects discussed showed that mens rea is in fact the defendant’s state of mind but not without some exceptions. Despite that, mens rea is still a very subjective area in criminal law and is yet to be firmly established as the state of mind. (1493 words).