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Crime IX - Mens Rea V

Updated on August 9, 2017

In R v Nedrick (1986) the accused had a longstanding grudge against the victim and decided to get his own back. One night he decided to get even and popped over to the victim’s house and poured paraffin through the letterbox and set it alight. A child died in the fire that resulted.

The facts are similar to Hyam v DPP (1974) and its worth mentioning that letterboxes are not always detached from the main house and in some houses especially those of an older design, letterboxes are simply a slit in the door that allows the postman to slip letters through and with these type of letterboxes it is more that foreseeable that if someone poured flammable liquid or inserted flammable material through the slit and then set the flammable liquid or material alight the chances are very high that someone in the house may be hurt or injured and the resultant fire might spread to other parts of the house.

The very fact that the act is done suggests or implies some degree of malice, there could be no other reason for anyone to do it, and it also implies that the act was done to cause some degree or measure of harm to the victim regardless of that fact that the damage or harm that resulted wasn’t what was intended. All it all it is still a very serious offence.

The accused was charged with murder and convicted. The accused appeal. While the House of Lords upheld the conviction for murder by a majority of 3 to 2 in Hyam v DPP (1974), the Court of Appeal in R v Nedrick (1986), substituted the conviction of murder for manslaughter finding that the accused lacked the intention to kill.

No doubt he intended some damage but it was not possible to say with any degree of certainty that the accused intended to kill and therefore the verdict was that of the lesser crime of manslaughter.

In R v Howe & Bannister (1987) the accused were two 19-year old’s and one 20 two-year-old, all male, who were acting under the direction of another 35-year-old male. The accused killed two boys, after torturing them and tried to kill a third boy who managed to escape. The accused were tried and convicted for murder and during the trial they raised the defense of duress and said that they were coerced into killing the boys. The court held that the defense of duress was not applicable in this instance especially given the fact that the boys were old enough to appreciate the consequences of their acts.

In R v Donnelly (1989) the accused accidentally fired his shotgun in a club and killed the victim. The accused was tried for murder. The question again was whether the accused had any intention to kill despite death being the consequence of his act. The facts were similar to R v Maloney (1985) where a shotgun had been fired without the intention to kill but nonetheless resulted in the death of another. The verdict that was returned in line with the House of Lords decision in R v Maloney (1985) was a verdict of manslaughter.

In Attorney-General’s Reference (No.3 of 1994) the accused stabbed his girlfriend, three times in various parts of her body including her stomach. She was 22 – 24 weeks pregnant at the time and slightly over a fortnight later, she delivered and though the baby was born premature it lived for 121 days before it died from the injuries sustained from the stabbing. The accused was charged on two counts: - 1) for causing grievous bodily harm to his girlfriend for which he was convicted and 2) for causing the death of the child i.e. murder.

On the second count, the question before the court was whether it is possible to cause GBH to a child that was in the mother’s womb and the question arose simply because the child was not yet born and did not have an identity or a personality of its own. The trial judge held that it was not possible to cause GBH to a child that was in the mother’s womb. The Attorney General referred the matter to the Court of Appeal on a point of law and the Court of Appeal held that the death of the baby was murder.

The accused appealed to the House of Lords who substituted the conviction for murder with that of manslaughter and clarified the law. It is possible to cause GBH to a child while it is in the mother’s womb if the child is then born and subsequently dies as a result of the injuries. The death of the child however could not be classed as murder because at the time the injuries were inflicted the child was not yet born and had not acquired an identity or personality of its own.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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