Bratty v Attorney General for Northern Ireland [1963] AC 386

Failure to discharge onus of proof in relation to defence of automatism


The appellant (B) was convicted of the murder of an 18-year-old girl. In his statement to the police, he said that he had been overcome with a “terrible feeling” and a “sort of blackness” during the event. At trial, B relied upon the defence of automatism as a result of psychomotor epilepsy but the trial judge dismissed this defence and did not submit it to the jury.


On Appeal to the House of Lords, B argued that the trial judge was wrong to dismiss the automatism defence. It was argued that the burden of proof was on the Crown to prove that (i) the acts were conscious and voluntary beyond reasonable doubt; (ii) there was a body of evidence indicating the act was not voluntary or consciously done and (iii) this body of evidence should have been left to the jury. The Crown submitted, inter alia, that where the defence of automatism is based on an internal factor then the onus upon the accused is the same as on a plea of insanity.


The trial judge was only under a duty to leave the issue of automatism to the jury where the defence had left a proper evidential foundation for doing so. The trial judge in this case was right to not leave the defence to the jury as the only cause alleged for the act in question was an internal factor i.e. a defect in reason from disease of the mind. Furthermore, as B was deemed to have been sane and reasonable at the time of the killing, he could not be said to lack intent and, therefore, there was no question of a reduced manslaughter charge.

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