Hill v Baxter [1958] 1 All ER 193

Insufficient evidence to rely on defence of automatism in dangerous driving case.


The defendant (B) was charged with dangerous driving. He claimed to have no memory from an early point in his journey to immediately after the incident. He contended that he had been overcome by a sudden illness and was therefore not liable under criminal law.


At first instance, it was accepted that B was “unconscious” at the time of the accident and, accordingly, the charges were dismissed. The prosecutor appealed and argued that having found that B had exercised skill in driving immediately prior to the incident it could not also be found that he was unconscious at the same time. B argued that whilst he was driving, he was driving in a state of automatism and he lacked mens rea.


The Court noted that the relevant offence in the Road Traffic Act 1930 contained an absolute prohibition and raised no question of mens rea. The key question was whether the defence of automatism applied. The onus of proving automatism rested with B given that it was a fact exclusively within his knowledge. The defence of automatism, in effect, says that the accused did not know or appreciate the nature or quality of his actions. In this sense, it gets very near to the defence of insanity. There was no evidence in this case that B was suffering from a “black-out.” His own evidence was consistent with falling asleep or not paying proper attention. Therefore, it was improper to find that B was not fully responsible in law and the appeal was allowed.

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