ACTUS REUS: OMISSION & CAUSATION The general basis for imposing liability in criminal law is that the defendant must be proved to have committed a guilty act whilst having had a guilty state of mind. The physical elements are collectively called the actus reus and the accompanied mental state is called the mens rea. It is the fundamental duty of the prosecution to prove both of these elements of the offence to the satisfaction of the judge or jury beyond reasonable doubt. In the absence of such proof the defendant will be acquitted.
ACTUS REUS An actus reus consists of more than just an act. It also consists of whatever circumstances and consequences are recognised for liability for the offence in question - in other words all the elements of an offence other than the mental element. The term actus reus has been given a much wider meaning by Glanville Williams in his criminal law. He says : When he use the technical tern actus reus we include all the external circumstances and consequences specified in the rule of law as constituting the forbidden situation.
Reus must be taken as indicating the situation specified in the actus reus as on that, given any necessary mental element, is forbidden by law. In other words, acus reus means the whole definition of the crime with the exception of the mental element – and it even includes a mental element in so far as that is contained in the definition of an act. Actus reus includes negative as well as positive elements. For example, as stared earlier, the actus reus of murder is the causing of death of a person.
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It also includes circumstances, such as the person whose death has been caused was not as a consequence of a sentence or death given to him or that the death was caused within the territorial jurisdiction of the state. OMISSIONS IN CRIMES Omissions are controversial for two main reasons_ first, whether and to what extent it is justifiable omissions rather than acts; and secondly, whether liability for omissions rather than act requirement in criminal law. Pursuing the second point here, much has been made above of the importance f requiring proof that the defendant voluntarily did something to produce prohibited conduct or consequence. In so far as this can be termed an ‘act requirement’, are omissions a true exception to it? If they are, is this another argument against criminalizing them? One much-discussed preliminary question is the distinction between acts and omissions. Sometimes it is argued that certain verbs imply action and therefore exclude liability for omissions, and that the criminal law should respect. The distinctions flowing from this. English courts have often used this linguistic or interpretive approach.
It has led to a variety of decisions in different statutes, without much discussion of the general principles underlying omissions liability. The law commissions considerably draft criminal code may be said to signal the continuation of this approach, by redefining the homicide offences in terms of ‘causing death’ rather than ‘killing’, and refining the damage offences in terms of ‘causing damage’, rather than ‘damaging’, so as ‘to leave fully open the courts the possibility of so constructing the relevant (statutory) provisions as to impose liability for omissions’.
The draft cod would therefore remove any linguistic awkwardness in saying, for example, that a parent killed a child by failing to feed it; but it does so in this specific instance, and without proclaiming a general principle, that the act requirement may be fulfilled by an omission of a duty can be established. Attachment to the vagaries of the language is no proper basis for delineating the boundaries of criminal liability.
In some situations the courts, following the linguistic approach, have nevertheless found themselves able to impose omissions liability. In Speck (1977)3 the defendant was charged with committing an act of gross indecency with or towards a child. The evidence was that an 8 yr old girl placed her hand on his trousers over his penis. he allowed that hand to remain there for some minutes, causing him to have an erection.
The court of appeal held that the defendants failure to remove the hand amounted to an invitation to the child with the act, or it created a duty in an adult to put an end to the innocent touching of this kind, with omissions liability for not fulfilling the duty. The analysis is similar to that in miller (1983) where D fell asleep whilst smoking, woke up to find the mattress smouldering, but simply left the room and went to sleep elsewhere. He was convicted of causing criminal damage by fire, on the basis that a person who initiates a sequence of events nnocently and then fails to do anything to stop the sequence should be regarded as having caused the whole sequence. On this view the conduct constitutes a single, continuing act; Miller caused the damage because he took no steps to extinguish the fire he had innocently started. It must be doubted whether these efforts to find an act which then coincides in point in point of time with defendants knowledge and intentions are convincing. surely the courts are imposing liability for an omission on these cases, by recognizing that a duty arises.
Speck is a little different from miller since the original act of the speck was of the girl, and the duty must therefore amount the recognition of an obligation on an adult to put an end to the indecent yet innocent touching by a child. In so far as these decisions appear to extend the statutory wording, are they objectionable on grounds of retroactivity and lack of fair warning, or defensible as applications of existing common law doctrine to new situations?
In other situations it seems possible to offer plausible reasons for regarding the same event as either an act or an omission, and in some cases the courts have sought to exploit this ambiguity when dealing with problematic medical issues. Yet it is one thing to say that a healthcare professional who decides not to replace an empty bag for a drip-feed has made an omission, whereas switching a ventilator off is an act; is another thing to maintain that the act-omission distinction should be crucial to any determination of the criminal liability in the two situations.
In Airedale NHS trust v bland (1993)the house of lords held that it would be lawful for a doctor to withdraw treatment from a patient in a persistent vegetative state, even though death would inevitable be hastened by that conduct. The house held that the withdrawal of treatment would constitute and omission, and thus regarded the duties of the doctor as the central issue. The decision was that the doctor a doctor has no duty to continue life supplying treatment when it is no longer in the best interest of the patient, having regard to responsible medical opinion.
However the court of appeal declined to adopt this subterfuge in Re A(conjoined twins: Surgical separation), holding that the surgical separation of the twins would undoubtedly an act, and subsequently deciding that carrying out an operation which would result in the death of one twin in order to save the life of other could be justifies on the grounds of necessity. This demonstration of the fragility of the act-omission distinction of the vagaries fthe English language indicates that it may be simplistic to oppose omissions liability in the principle.
There are some clear cases of omission in which it is desirable to have criminal liability, such as the parent who neglects to feed her or his child or neglects to protect it from abuse. Omissions can be involuntary or not, in the same way as acts; and provided, that the harm resulted because D failed to intervene, it can be argued that omissions are also causes. Omissions liability ay therefore satisfy the principles that no one should be held liable for bodily movements that he or she did not or could not direct.
It may also satisfy the principle that no person should be held liable for the conduct or consequences that he or she did not cause. But one point of the act requirement is to exclude liability for mere thoughts that do not result in some bodily movement, and omissions fall foul to that. They do so for a good reason – that certain positive duties to act are so important that they can rightly be made the subject of criminal liability. Of course, such a duty should also be defined with sufficient certainty and made known to those affected by it.
So long as these formal requirements are fulfilled there can be no fairness objection to holding a person liable, provided that he or she is capable of taking some steps to carry out the duty. CAUSATION IN CRIMES An event is very often the result of a number of factors. A factor is said to have caused a particular event if, without that factor or, the event would not have happened. Thus, a man is said to have caused the actus reus of a crime, if, that actus would not have occurred without his participation in what was done. Some casual relationships has to be established between his conduct and the prohibited result.
A man is usually held criminally liable only for the consequences of his conduct as he foresaw, (or is crimes of negligence, he ought to have foreseen). The act must be the causa causans, ie, the immediate or proximate cause of the effect. When the facts are direct and simple, then establishing the causal nexus between the act and the effect may not be difficult, as for instance in a case of person shooting another person and thereby killing him. The causation can also be without any direct physical act. if the victim asks his way on a dark night nd the accused with the intention of causing his death, directs him to a path that he knows will bring him to a cliff edge , and the victing suffers a fatal fall, this is clearly murder, though the accused has done nothing more than utter words. This can be true in cases of abetment, incitement and conspiracy. In the instances stated above, it is not difficult to establish the direct result between the cause and the effect. The difficulty arises only in cases of multiple causation, where it is difficult to establish the imputability. Example: A, intending to kill B but only wounds him very slightly.
A clearly has the requisite mens rea for murder, that is, he foresees and desires B’s death. Not let us assume that on his being ta ken to the hospital in an ambulance, a piece of masonry from a building falls on the ambulance and kills B; or, alternatively, that B has a rare blood disease which prevents his blood from coagulation so that the slight wound leads to his death, which it would not have done if he had not been suffering from this disease; or, alternatively, that B refuses to have the wound treated and dies of blood poisoning, which would not have occurred if B had had the wounded treated.
In all these cases, a problem of causation arises, i. e. , did A cause B’s death for the purposes of the criminal law so that he can be convicted of murder? If the result is too remote and accidental in its occurrence, then there is no criminal liability. CAUSATION AND NEGLIGENCE The difficulty of causation arises very often n cases of negligence. It has t be established that first, the conduct of the person was negligent and secondly, that but for the negligent act of accused, the accident would not have occurred. In other words, the actus reus should be causally connected to the act, which should be proved to be a negligent.
In order to impose criminal liability under S 304A, IPC, it is essential to establish that death is the direct result of the rash or (and) negligent act of the accused. It must be causa causans – the immediate cause and not enough that it may be quasa sine qua non, ie, proximate cause. There can be no conviction when rashness or negligence of third party intervenes. In Suleman rahiman mulani v state of Maharashtra the Supreme Court has approved his rule. In Suleman rahiman mulani the accused who was driving the jeep struck the deceased, as a result of which he sustained serious injuries. The ccused put the injured person in the jeep for medical treatment, but he died. Thereafter, the accused cremated the body. The accused was charged under s304A and 201 of the IPC. As per s 304A, there must be direct nexus between the death of a person and rash and negligent act of the accused that caused the death of the deceased. It was the case of the prosecution of the accused had possessed only a learner’s license and hence was guilty of causing the death of the deceased. The court held that there was no presumption in law that a person who possesses only a learner’s license or possesses no license at all, does not know driving.
A person could for various reasons, including sheer indifference, might not have been taken a regular license . there was evidence to show that the accused had driven the jeep to various places on the previous day of occurrence. So before the accused convicted under s304A, there must a proof that the accused drove in a rash and negligent manner and death was a direct consequence of such rash and negligent manner. In the absence of such evidence no offence under s 304A was made out. The accused was acquitted of the charges. MINIMAL CAUSATION
When death of a person is caused after medical treatment, it cannot be said that the treatment was not proper or inadequate, or had better treatment been given, the death would not have taken place. This is because, the intervention of the doctor is in the nature of minimum causation and hence its intervention would have played only a minor part, if any, in causing death. As far as the IPC is concerned, explanation 2 of s 299 specifically states that if an act causes death, even death could have been avoided by proper remedies and skilful treatment, the act shall be deemed to have caused death and the person will be criminally liable.
If death results from an injury voluntarily caused, the person who causes the injury, therefore, is deemed to have caused the death, although the life of victim might have been saved if proper medical treatment, provided that it was administered in good faith by a competent physician or surgeon. In Moti singh v state of uttar Pradesh the deceased gayacharan had received two gunshot wounds in the abdomen which were dangerous to life. The injury was received on February 1960. There was no evidence when he was discharged from the hospital and whether he had fully recovered or not.
He, however, died on march 1 1960. His body was cremated without post mortem being done. The supreme court held that the two gunshot injuries were dangerous to life were not sufficient for holding that gyancharans death, which took place about three weeks after the incident, was on account of the injuries received by him. The court observed that in order to prove the charges on gyancharans murder, it was necessary to establish that he had died on account of injuries received on him.
Since, the was no evidence to establish the cause of death, the accused could not be said to have caused the death of gyancharan. A crucial aspect highlighted by the court in the case was that the connection between the primary cause and the death should not be too remote. CONCLUSION Causation is a complex topic, with which we have been able to deal only brief here. Proof of causation is often said to be an essential precondition of criminal liability, but there is reason to doubt the generality of that requirement, notably in respect of accomplice liability and vicarious criminal liability.
Rather than insisting on a universal requirement of causation, it may be preferable to argue that liability should be negatived, in general, by the voluntary intervening act of another. Several criticisms of the judicial approach to three exceptional categories of case hace been advanced above. Often the explanations given by the courts are unconvincing. Whilst the traditional or standard causal theory emphasizes the significance of the last voluntary act, there is no reluctance to took wider or to massage the term ‘voluntary’ in certain situations, especially where D clearly stated that the sequence of events by doing a wrongful act.
The challenge is to re-examine the intuitions that lead judges and others to their conclusions (the wrongful act theory, the approach to medical mistakes etc. ) with a view to constructing a law that ensures that the courts respect the various principles . BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. P. S. A. Pillai – Criminal law 2. Glanville Williams book on criminal law 3. www. lawteacher. com -------------------------------------------- [ 1 ]. Page 427, principles of criminal law, Glanville williams [ 2 ]. Duff, criminal attempts, 317-20 Glanville Williams [ 3 ]. 65 CR App R 161. [ 4 ]. (1983) 2 AC 161 [ 5 ]. Criticisms by jc smith (1982) Crim LR 527 and 724, and D.
Husak, philosophy of criminal law(1987), 176-8 [ 6 ]. See I. M Kennedy, Treat me right (1988) 169-74 [ 7 ]. (1993) AC 789 [ 8 ]. 4 ALL ER 961 [ 9 ]. Emery (1993) 14 Cr App R (s) 394, aand the new duty by the domestic violence, crime and victims act 2004. [ 10 ]. Glanville Williams, ‘criminal law- causation’) [ 11 ]. Rustom sherior Irani v state of Maharashtra(1969) ACC Cj 79 (SC) [ 12 ]. Md rangawalla v state of mahaarashtra AIR 1965 [ 13 ]. However a driver is expected to anticipate reasonably foreseeable negligent act to road users as contributory negligence has no application in criminal law. [ 14 ]. Re san pai (1936) 14 rang 643
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