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Criminal Law Cases that Sculpted Acteus Reus

Updated on August 28, 2013

Actus Reus - Guilty Act!

The following cases have all helped to sculpt the way we understand and deal with the concept of actus reus - or guilty act - in law today. Although there may be many more that sculpted actus reus, these are definitely a good start for anyone newly interesting in law.

The concept of actus reus is fundamental to our understanding of law and so naturally so are the individual recorded scenarios that formed it!

Not this Mitchell.
Not this Mitchell. | Source

R v Mitchell (1983)

The case where a man attempted to cut in line at a Post Office only to be confronted by an elderly man who he pushed into a crowd onto an elderly woman, causing her to fall, break her leg and later, die.

The defendant argued that his unlawful act was not directed at that elderly woman but the appeal court ruled that it didn't matter. Mitchell was convicted of unlawful act manslaughter.

Not this Windsor.
Not this Windsor. | Source

Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent (1983)

A man was taken to the hospital but was found to just be drunk and told to leave. Not leaving, the police were called and he was taken to the street. He was then arrested there for being drunk on a highway despite the police taking him there themselves.

The courts ruled that it was enough for Winzar to have been found drunk on a highway and it was not necessary to ask how he got there.

And of course, not this mill.
And of course, not this mill. | Source

R v Miller (1983)

Miller was squatting in a building and fell asleep on his mattress whilst smoking. His cigarette set fire to the mattress but when Miller awoke he simply went to a different room. This allowed the fire spread to the other rooms, causing damages of £800.

The court ruled that Miller was guilty of arson due to the following facts:

  • Miller's recklessness to the fire constituted mens rea 'guilty mind'.
  • His subsequent failure (omission) at putting out the fire, coupled with his initial recklessness constituted actus reus under the principle of 'supervening fault'.

Actually a forest, not a wood, hope you don't mind.
Actually a forest, not a wood, hope you don't mind. | Source

R v Pitwood (1902)

The case where a railway company employee forgot to drop the train track gate, causing a collision of a hay cart with a train and the subsequent death of its driver.

The courts ruled that the defendant had a contractual duty to manage the gate and therefore was guilty of manslaughter for his failure to do so.

This case is Important because it shows that some professions impose duties that require more action than the average reasonable citizen in certain situations.

R v Dytham (1979)

  • A policeman was convicted for failing to act upon his duties when a fight broke out at a club.
  • the courts ruled that even though the policeman was off duty at the time he should still have been obligated to do whatever a reasonable policeman could have done in the specific situation.
  • This case can draw a parallel, then, to case above mentioned R v Pitwood as it too exemplifies the idea that certain members of the public have more inherent duty than the average reasonable citizen.

Remember to try to memorise the years in which these cases were dealt with - this will not only help you contextualise but also seem way more classy when referring to any one of them.

"Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent 1983" sounds a lot more informed than "Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent" and informed is what you want to portray as a lawyer to your firm or student to your professor!

R v Stone & Dobinson (1977)

The two defendants (of below intelligence) took in one of their sisters as a guest. She then became ill did progressively got worse until she died.

It turned out that the two defendants, who had both agreed to look after her, had not attempted to get any medicine (or sought medical expertise) and so the court ruled that they had committed manslaughter.

It is then concluded that one has a legal duty to look after a person that one has voluntarily taken under one's care - if you fail to even try you will be punished.

Never trust a gibbon, especially with a child.
Never trust a gibbon, especially with a child. | Source

R v Gibbins & Proctor

  • Gibbins and Proctor partook in the landmark case that allowed the law to concretely express the idea that any carer of children has the legal duty to (at least try to) look after the children they have agreed to care for.
  • Gibbins and Proctor were man and wife and both lived in the same house with the husband's (but not the wife's) daughter, Nelly.
  • The wife was found to hold a hatred for Nelly and was believed to be the driving force behind Gibbins and Proctor failing to feed Nelly for a duration long enough for her to die of starvation.
  • The courts ruled that a parent-child relationship was so self apparent that it did not need investigating and that Gibbins and Proctor were guilty of murder.
  • A parent, according to common law, has the legal duty to look after his or her child and omitting to do so may result in criminal charges.


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    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 4 years ago from London

      Ah I see, I think that if it is simply a case of man-gone-wild and attacking even an armed police officer then there is no blame on the police officer. It rarely ever seems to be un-provoked like that, I guess we'll never know how the policeman defended the other guy off-duty.

      And it's that big deal of "is not doing something to prevent a crime, a crime?" In France it certainly is so - you have to show you attempted to do something if you see a crime happening or you risk being caught out and charged! This doesn't mean trying to physically apprehend an assailant or rapist but at least calling the police. I really like that about the french system and I think R v Dytham is a kind of halfway house towards that.

    • Borsia profile image

      Borsia 4 years ago from Currently, Philippines

      Thanks Phil.

      Most law enforcement agents at pretty much every level are required to carry a gun when off duty so his simply having a gun is pretty much moot.

      The aggressor had technically already committed assault but from what I read the agent wasn't trying to arrest him, just telling him to cool out and stop bullying the other patron.

      The law with regard to self defense allows one to stop an attack against themselves with whatever force is required. One problem with this case is that although it was captured on the restaurant's security camera the actual end of the fight is off camera.

      If the aggressor was pushing the fight even after being told that the man was law enforcement, showing his badge, and pulling his weapon then it is reasonable to believe that the aggressor intended to inflict sever bodily harm. If that is the case it is purely self defense and he should be acquitted of any wrong doing and charges dropped.

      The funny thing about R v Dytham is that I've never heard that an lawman on duty or off is required to intercede, apparently what I've read in the past was incorrect.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 4 years ago from London

      Oh wow that is really interesting, R v Dytham really shocked me actually - I thought that when off duty you have no obligations tied to your work at all, it's a perfect exemplar of the Common Law's common reiteration of the idea that sometimes individual rights will be sacrificed for public security.

      I'm not sure what federal agents are allowed to do in Hawaii (or the USA for that matter) but I think here the fact that a gun was fired would amount to unreasonable force. This is providing the assailant was not trying to murder anyone?

      Very interesting case all the same Borsia, I'm impressed at how you always have an example for everything - your brain must be very good at making connections. Detective Borsia?

      Thanks for reading!


    • Borsia profile image

      Borsia 4 years ago from Currently, Philippines

      This is interesting when applied to the recent question posted about the brawl in Hawaii where an off duty federal agent was attacked after trying to intercede in an altercation between 2 other patrons.

      When one patron began to bully and threaten another the agent went to him telling him to stop. The aggressor then started with the agent who showed him his badge and told him again to stop. Instead the aggressor attacked the agent who then shot and killed him.

      According to the case above ( R vs Dytham) the agent had an obligation to get involved because it was his duty as a lawman to intercede.

      This would further his claim of self defense in the shooting.

      In any case a very interesting hub Phil