The law of causation concerning new intervening acts

'The law of causation concerning new intervening acts reveals only one rule; those who do bad things with even worse consequences must expect to pay for them' – Discuss Causation is one of the fundamental basics to determine criminal liability. It is the minimum condition to assess whether someone is liable for a crime which specifies a consequence and it would be wrong to convict a person who did not cause the consequence. The problem arises however when there is uncertainty as to what was the principle cause of the criminal act.

For example when there is a long chain of events leading up to the consequence how far can we trace back the steps to determine who the initiator of the actual criminal act was? Take for instance the case Commonwealth v Welansky (1942). A fire broke out in a nightclub, spreading quickly and killing 500 people. There were several people that could have been blameworthy. A prankster switched off a light and was ordered by the waiter to turn it back on. In doing so he used a match to enable him to see which caught fire on a decorative palm and the flames spread.

Was the waiter to blame for ordering the light to be turned? Or was it the prankster who lit the match? Another candidate for blame was the owner who had installed the inflammable decorations. Was he the cause of all the deaths? The questions this case raises are how far can someone be liable for the criminal act at the beginning of the causal chain and to what extent do new intervening acts alter liability? These are questions I will now attempt to address. The requirement of causal responsibility is drawn from the principle of individual autonomy.

This is a theory based on the idea that individuals are capable of choosing their acts and omissions and thus should be responsible for the consequences. As such causal responsibility is attached to the last person who voluntarily influenced the situation. For example, if A stabs B yet he does not die until C intervenes to shoot and kill B, A is not liable for B's murder, C is. The last human to impinge on the situation resulting in the criminal act will be regarded as the cause of that act. This example, based on the chronology of events, is however not applicable to all situations.

There are situations in which an intervening act will not sever the causal responsibility between the initial act and the prohibited result. It is in these cases that 'those who do bad things with even worse consequences' have to pay for those consequences. One such case is in Welansky. It was the owner of the club that was held liable for manslaughter despite the fact that he played no role in actually initiating the fire and was not even at the scene of the crime. The judge reasons behind the decision refer to Welansky's acts prior to the lighting of the match.

In decorating the club, Welansky has used defective wiring and inflammable decorations which were said to play fundamental in causing the death of so many. Furthermore there were insufficient exit doors which were kept locked. This case is on in which Welansky committed a bad act of acting recklessly with regards to the safety standards of the club and therefore should expect to pay for the even worse consequence of the deaths of the people within the club. Another such circumstance in which the causal chain is not broken is when medical negligence occurs as a result of the initial act which causes the victims death.

This is illustrated in the case of Smith. When the victim was stabbed by Smith, a series of 'unfortunate occurrences' followed; the victim was dropped twice by the person trying to assist him. These occurrences were said to 'impede the chances of healing. ' Furthermore the treatment was described as 'thoroughly bad'. Despite there being a 75% of recovery but for these events occurring however, the court held that the causal chain was not broken and Smith was the cause of the victims' death.

The court came to a different conclusion however in the case of Jordan. After Jordan had stabbed the victim, the victim received medical negligent treatment which was found to be the cause of death and not the stabbing. The court proposed that 'two separate and independent of treatments were…. palpably wrong' and the stab wounds were not the cause of the death, they already healing when negligent medical treatment was received. The court held that Jordan was not liable for murder.

Lord Parker distinguished Jordan as being 'a very particular case dependent on the exact facts'; this is to suggest that the facts of Jordan cannot easily be applied to similar cases such as Smith. The reason for this is that in Jordan the wounds had almost healed. In Smith however, the wounds were described as an 'operating' and 'substantial cause' at the time of death. It was stated that 'only if the second cause is so overwhelming as to make the original wound merely part of history can it be said that the death does not flow from the wound.

' In this case the court held that Smith was liable for the victims' murder. In Cheshire the Beldam L. J stated that 'it will be only in the most extraordinary and unusual case that such treatment can be said to be so independent of the acts of the accused that it could be regarded in law as the cause of the victim's death to the exclusion of the accused's acts'. The 'extraordinary' example is perhaps the example of Jordan as the wound had almost healed and become a part of the background. It is a rare occurrence for the judge to hold doctors liable for the murder despite the presence of medical negligence.

It is often viewed that doctors are merely performing their duties to their patients and as such their actions are not sufficiently free or voluntary to break the causal chain. This principle was applied to the case of Pagett in which Pagett shot at police officers trying to arrest him, using his girlfriend as a hostage to shield himself. The officers shot back, killing the girl. In similarity to Smith, the conduct of the police officers was considered negligent with regards to the handling of the siege. However this was only established ten years later when the mother was awarded damages for this negligence.

At the time, the police were considered merely to be acting in self defence and doing the duties required by them. It was Pagett that was convicted for manslaughter despite the fact that the police officer fired the shot that killed the victim. Hart and Honere suggest that if a third party, not acting in collaboration with the accused, is to relieve the accused of criminal responsibility, the act of the third party must be voluntary. The police officers acted in self preservation and out of a legal duty therefore their conduct is considered involuntary and does not operate as a novus actus intervenius.