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Mens Rea II - Intent

Updated on July 28, 2017

Mens Rea is divided into various classes. The first type of Mens Rea and the easiest to understand or comprehend is intent. Intention is affirmed when the defendant wants something to happen as a result of his or her actions. Intention itself can be divided into two categories - direct and oblique intent.

Direct intent is relatively straightforward and easy enough to discern or establish. For example the defendant wants to kill a person and in furtherance of his or her thought, he or she goes to a shop and purchases a knife and having bought the knife, he or she then stabs his or her victim with the knife, knowing that his or her actions will result in the death of the victim.

Similarly the defendant goes to a gunsmith to purchase a gun. He or she acquires the gun and the bullets and at a chosen time and at an appointed location points the gun at the victim and pulls the trigger, once again with the knowledge that his or her actions will result in the death of the victim.

Let us look at another example. The defendant invites the victim over for dinner and prepares a meal that is laced with cyanide. He or she allows the victim to consume the meal with the full knowledge that the victim will die as a result of consuming the meal.

In all the three examples given above the intention of the defendant is clear, in that, the act is done to precipitate the death of the victim. In other words the act is done with malice aforethought and the act is done with the defendant’s mental faculties intact or the defendant is fully aware that his or her actions will result in either death or grievous bodily harm to the victim.

Malice afterthought simply means that the act is done with wanton, often utter, disregard for human life or a degree of callousness that completely disregards the consequences of the act.

Malice afterthought however does not in any way imply hate, rage or any form of ill-will towards the victim for example when the act of killing is done for profit.

A simple example would be large sum insurance pay-outs. There might not be any dislike for the victim but in order for the defendant to benefit from the policy the victim has to be dead and therefore the act of killing is committed or perpetrated.

Oblique intent occurs when the defendant claims that the consequences of his or her actions were different from what he or she intended for example when an act is done to scare or to intimidate the victim but it leads to or results in death.

In Hyam v DPP (1974), Mrs. Hyam poured petrol (a flammable liquid) in the letterbox of her lover’s (Mr. Jones) new partner (Mrs. Booth) which she ignited by using a newspaper and a match to scare Mrs. Booth. The consequences of her actions were that Mrs. Booth’s children died as a result of asphyxia.

The house by a majority of three to two held that “No distinction is to be drawn in English law between the state of mind of one who does an act because he desires it to produce a particular evil consequence, and the state of mind of one who does the act knowing full well that it is likely to produce that consequence although it may not be the object he was seeking to achieve by doing the act” – Lord Diplock.

This area of the law was first recognized or realized in the case of DPP v Smith (1961) - Smith had stolen some goods and loaded it to the back of his car. A policeman ordered him to stop but he drove off instead and the policeman jumped on to the back of the car in order to stop him. The policeman was subsequently throw off from the back of the vehicle, into the path of other oncoming vehicles and died as a result.

The House of Lords unanimously upheld the conviction. In doing what he (Smith) did, he must, as a reasonable man have contemplated that serious harm was likely to occur. Hence he is guilty of murder.

The test in DPP v Smith (1961) is as follows:- If the jury is satisfied that he (Smith) must as a reasonable man have contemplated that grievous bodily harm (GBH) was likely to have resulted to the policeman from his actions and such harm did in actual fact occur, than the accused is guilty of murder. On the other hand if the jury is satisfied that he (Smith) could not have contemplated that the policeman would incur grievous bodily harm (GBH) as a result of his actions then the verdict would be guilty of manslaughter.

This is also sometimes known as foresight of consequence i.e. could the defendant have reasonably contemplated the consequences of his actions?

The test in DPP v Smith (1961) was supplanted by Section 8 of the Criminal Justice Act (1967) - Proof of criminal intent.

A court or jury, in determining whether a person has committed an offence -

(a) shall not be bound in law to infer that he intended or foresaw a result of his actions by reason only of its being a natural and probable consequence of those actions; but

(b) shall decide whether he did intend or foresee that result by reference to all the evidence, drawing such inferences from the evidence as appear proper in the circumstances.

In Maloney (1985) the appellant and his stepfather had been drinking heavily during a family party. Subsequently, after the other family members had retired for the night, the pair participated in a gun loading contest which the appellant won. The stepfather then challenged the appellant to pull the trigger, which he did. The gun went off and he killed his stepfather. The appellant argued that he loved and adored his stepfather.

Similarly in Hancock and Shankland (1986) two striking miners dropped a concrete block and a concrete post from a motorway bridge which struck a taxi taking a working miner to work, thereby killing the taxi driver. The appellants argued that they merely intended to stop the work from progressing or continuing.

In both cases the trial judges directed the jury in terms of the second meaning of intention (oblique intention), as given in Hyam V DPP (1974), and in both cases the appellants were convicted by the jury for murder.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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