R v Watson [1989] 2 All ER 865

Unlawful act manslaughter and unforeseeable harm


Mr Watson and another person threw a brick through the elderly and seriously ill victim’s house. Unaware of the victim’s condition and age, they entered the victim’s house. They verbally abused him and left. Within 90 minutes of the incident, the victim died. Mr Watson pleaded guilty to burglary under s.9(1)(a) of the Theft Act 1968, but was also tried for manslaughter resulting from an unlawful act. He was convicted of manslaughter but appealed.


The trial judge directed the jury that manslaughter could be established if the victim’s death was caused by an unlawful act which a reasonable person would foresee as capable of causing the victim some harm, regardless of whether the defendant himself recognised that risk. The jury were entitled to assume that defendant gained knowledge that a hypothetical bystander would have gained during his stay in the house. Mr Watson argued that the jury had been misled, as at the time of the commission of the burglary (i.e. the time of his entry to the house), no reasonable bystander would have known more than him at that point. Consequently, the jury should not have been directed to assume any more knowledge to the reasonable bystander. Secondly, Mr Watson also claimed that the jury should not have had to deal with a fresh topic after retirement.


The Court rejected Mr Watson’s argument as to the unlawful act occurring only at the time of entry to the house. It was the entirety of the act of burglarious intrusion that constituted the unlawful act and therefore, all the knowledge the defendant gained throughout the burglarious intrusion (i.e. the victim’s age, health, etc.) counted. The jury were thus correctly directed on this point. However, the introduction of a fresh topic to the jury after retirement, without giving an opportunity to the defendant to address to the jury on this issue, rendered the conviction unsafe.