The Mens Rea of a crime

The Mens Rea of a crime refers to the mental element or the state of mind the defendant possesses in order to be liable for an offence. Mens Rea can be any one of four elements, Transferred Malice, Recklessness, Gross Negligence or Intention. It is crimes of specific intent such as murder which require a Mens Rea of either direct or oblique intent. Direct intent is where the defendant desires the consequences and it is his or her purpose to achieve these consequences. An example of direct intent would be September 11th 2001. Oblique intent is where the defendant doesn’t desire the consequences but it is a virtually certain result of their actions. It is this area of intention that has caused problems and confusion in the law.

In order to prove intention the jury must decide how foreseeable the defendant’s actions were to cause the consequences. There is however two measures used for foreseeability, highly probable and virtually certain. Unfortunately it has not been made clear which measure to follow. The current state of the law on intention was expressed by the House of Lords in the case of R v Woollin 1998. This case modified an earlier direction made by the Court of Appeal in the case of R v Nedrick. In Woollin the law lords expressed that intention can only be established if the defendant knew that the consequences would be a virtually certain result of his actions. However this has not always been the case.

The first major case in determining intention was the case of DPP v Hyam 1975 where the defendant poured petrol through a woman’s letter box and the set fire to it. Due to Hyam’s actions two children died. The defendant claimed that she had only intended to frighten the woman. Judges in this case gave the impression that intention could be established if it was proved that the defendant foresaw the results of his actions as being highly probable.

The question of what constitutes intention appeared again in the case of Moloney 1985. In this case Lord Bridge stated that if the consequence was a natural consequence of the defendants act and if the defendant foresaw that his actions would almost certainly cause the consequence then it is clear that the defendant intended the consequence. Due to this change confusion was caused.

The guidelines laid down in Moloney were required just one year later in the case of R v Hancock and Shankland 1986. This case concerned striking miners who were angry with another miner for going back to work. In trying to frighten the miner they killed a taxi driver. The trial judge, Lord Scarman, said that the Moloney guidelines were misleading and requires a reference to probability. He also said that it is for the jury to decide whether intention existed after looking at all the evidence available. This case also established that the Moloney guidelines should no longer be used and the jury should be directed that if the defendant foresaw the consequences as being highly probable result of his actions then the consequence was intended by the defendant.

However in the same year this matter reappeared again in the case of R v Nedrick and again instead of following precedent, Lord Lane directed that if the defendant recognised that death or serious injury would be a virtual certain result of his actions then the defendant intended to kill or cause serious bodily harm even though he may not have had any desire to achieve that result. Naturally this caused more confusion as not only has the law changed again the facts of this case were almost identical to those in Hyam yet both cases produced different results. Also the case of Moloney produced the same result of virtually certain but was said to be incorrect and yet in this case virtually certain is being used again.

This set of cases continued to cause confusion over this area of law and the case of R v Walker and Hayles 1990 added to this confusion. In this case a conviction of attempted murder was upheld on the grounds that the death of the victim was a highly probable result of the defendant’s actions. This again cause more confusion because on two occasions prior to this case the highly probable definition was accused of being wrong however in this case highly probable was used again. This produces uncertainty in the law which is not desired.

It was the case of R v Woollin 1996 which changed the law once more. Instead of jurors being directed that a highly probable result of the defendants actions would result in intention, the jury was directed that intention could be found if death or serious bodily harm was a virtually certain result of the defendants actions and that the defendant realised that this was the case.

This issue of intention resurfaced in 2003 in the case of Mathews and Alleyne. However this time the Court of Appeal followed the previous decision made in Woollin as being that the jury can infer intention if the defendant foresaw the consequences of his actions as being a virtually certain result. This is now the current law on intention and by following the previous decision made in Woollin has made the law more certain.

Section eight of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 states that a court or jury shall not be bound to infer that the defendant intended or foresaw a result of his actions as being a natural and probable consequence of those actions however, they shall decide whether the defendant did intend or foresee that result from reference to all evidence available.

The major problem with this area of law is that intention is a subjective concept and is entirely dependant on what was going through the defendants mind at the time of the offence. Also unless you are dealing with direct intent reference must be made to what the defendant foresaw would happen as a result of his actions. It is only if the defendant foresaw death or really serious injury as virtually certain to happen that a jury is entitled to find that the defendant intended it to happen, phrases such as highly probable to not satisfy this standard.

The Law Commission has proposed a definition in clause 18(b) in the Draft Criminal Code Bill 1981 which states that a person acts intentionally with respect to a result when it is his purpose to cause it or although it is not his purpose to cause that result, he is aware that it would occur in the ordinary course of events if he were to succeed in his purpose of causing some other result. Also in the draft Offences Against the Person Bill 1998 intention is defined in similar terms. The defendant acts intentionally if a result was his purpose or where it was not his purpose the defendant knew that it would occur in the ordinary course of events if he were to succeed in his purpose of causing some other result. This supports the Law Commission’s view that both direct and oblique intent should continue to satisfy the legal requirements of intention.

In conclusion, the explanation of foresight of consequences in Nedrick, where appropriate, are relevant to all offences and not just murder. The Criminal Law now states that a consequence is intended when it is the purpose of the accused. A court or jury may also infer that a consequence is intended, though it is not desired, when the consequence is a virtually certain result of the act and when the accused knows that it is a virtually certain consequence. This area of law has proved to be confusing to both juries and judges due to the uncertainty of precedent. As the law stands today it appears to have reached a decision of virtually certain but as before is not certain to remain.