R v Clarke [1972] 1 All ER 219

Availability of insanity defence for depression and temporary absent mindedness


The defendant was apprehended for shoplifting after she placed certain items (including a jar of coffee, a jar of mincemeat and butter) into her handbag. She was charged with theft, contrary to Theft Act 1968 c.60, s.1 and was convicted. The Defendant asserted that she had no recollection of doing so and that she must have done so in a bout of absent mindedness and hence, that she had no mens rea for the offence. Medical evidence was adduced to show that she was diabetic and in addition, both her GP and a psychiatrist testified that she was suffering from depression, which was associated (or could be associated) with such bouts of absent mindedness. The trial judge ruled that the appropriate defence was one of insanity.


The issue in this case was whether the defence of insanity was appropriate in the case of someone suffering from depression and experiencing a temporary instance of absent mindedness.


The court held that the defendant had not articulated an insanity defence (rather was merely seeking to deny mens rea) and that in any event a case of temporary absent mindedness is very far removed from the standard necessary to succeed in an insanity defence. In order for a defence of insanity to succeed, the defect of reason of the defendant must be substantial. Further, the defendant in this case had simply momentarily lapsed in her ability to use her power to reason, whereas insanity is related to a more long term lack of ability to use one’s reasoning.