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Crime I - Actus Reus I

Updated on July 31, 2017

Before a defendant or an accused can be adjudged guilty of a crime, there are two components that must be satisfied. The act of committing the crime or the actus reus and the mental element or the mens rea. The test that is applied is the subjective test i.e. the court will look into the defendant’s state of mind at the time he or she committed the offence as opposed to asking the question if a reasonable man would have acted the way the defendant did or would a reasonable man have failed to have acted under the given circumstances.

Actus Reus

Actus reus is often defined as the act of committing a crime and the general rule with regards to actus reus is that no liability will be imposed for a failure to act unless there was a voluntary undertaking of responsibility or a special relationship or some sort of a duty that compelled the accused to act.

Let us say for example that a couple adopted a child in accordance with the stipulated procedures and for some reason or other failed to feed the child and the child died as a result. Then an action may be brought against the adoptive parents in criminal law.

Likewise let us say that a couple who had a child, naturally, neglected to care for the child and the child died as a result then the couple will most likely have criminal charges brought against them by the relevant authorities.

Under normal circumstance an omission or a failure to act will not fall into the category of actus reus or the act of committing a crime unless there was a duty that was imposed on the defendant to act in a certain manner and the failure of the accused to act in the manner he or she was supposed to or required to led to either death or serious bodily harm to another.

In R v Pittwood (1902) the defendant was employed to man the gate at a level crossing and he went off for lunch without closing the gate during which time a man on a horse pulled cart attempted to cross the railway track and was hit by an oncoming train. The accident resulted in the death of the driver and the horse that was pulling the cart. The defendant was charged in court for failing to carry out his duties and was found guilty of causing the death of the driver.

However, if the defendant’s inactions would not have caused the death or serious injury and death or serious injury would have been the likely result even if the accused had acted then the defendant would not be adjudged guilty. In other words, the accused must be culpable or deserving blame before he can be adjudged guilty.

In R v Dalloway (1847) the accused, the driver of a horse drawn cart was driving his cart down the road, when suddenly a child ran out in front of the cart and was hit by it. The defendant was not holding the reins at the time the cart was travelling down the street and as a result deprived himself of the means of preventing an accident. The defendant was charged in court.

During the trial, the defendant adduced evidence to show that even if he had been holding on to the reins, the accident would still have occurred and the child would have suffered fatal injuries. The court acquitted the defendant and found him to be not guilty.

If an accused was grossly or overbearingly negligent and his or her negligent act had led to death or serious injuries to others than the defendant would most likely be found or held to be liable.

In R v Benge (1865) the accused, a prisoner, was in charge of a group of prison workers who were working on a railway track. The accused had misread the train timetable and had assumed that the train would arrive a couple of hours later than when it actually did arrive and as a result at the time the train came through there were workers on the track.

As a precaution however, the accused had sent one of the workers ahead, the worker was supposed to stand 1000 meters away from the others and was supposed to signal the driver the moment he saw the train appear.

The worker however only went half the distance but he did signal the driver as soon as he saw the train approaching. The driver however wasn’t paying much attention and hence did not have enough time to stop. The accused was charged in court.

During the trial, the defense claimed that the accused wasn’t entirely to blame and both the driver and the worker who was sent ahead were also equally to blame but the accused was found guilty nonetheless.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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