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Actus reus of a crime

The aim of this essay is to explain how an actus reus of a crime can still be formed without an actual criminal activity taking place, and how an actus reus can be formed. It will also explain what an actus reus is and how it is formed. It will also give examples of the type of situations in which an actus reus is said to have been formed. And it will also show some of the absurd instances in which an actus reus is said to be formed, but quite frankly, some of the situations seems very unlikely that it is criminal but none the less a conviction was made.

Actus reus, in essence, means some form of criminal act. The nature of the criminal act can vary in degree and seriousness as it can be something as serious as assault and rape, which involve physical force being applied, but it can include something such as theft or fraud. The latter of the crimes is not as serious as the others, but they are still included in the term actus reus. In forming an actus reus, there are three main things which are seen as the three main ways in which an actus reus can be formed. These main parts are crimes of omission, overt acts and a state of affairs. According to T.H. Jones & M.G.A. Christie, “an overt act is simply a movement of a part of the body”. This basically means that if someone uses a part of their body to do something criminal, such as using their fist to punch someone, then this will amount to an actus reus. Again in T.H. Jones & M.G.A. Christie, they say that an omission is only applicable if someone has failed to act where there was a legal duty to act. This means that if, for example, a police officer sees a crime being committed against someone and they fail to intervene, then they can be held liable for the outcome of the crime, as they failed to up hold their position of legal duty. The last of the three main parts of an actus reus is a state of affairs. T.H. Jones & M.G.A. Christie again say that a state of affairs is the following “... a number of statutory offences defined in such a way that they can be committed when a certain state of affairs exists, or where the accused is in a particular situation”. Basically this statement means that a crime can be committed if the person is in a particular situation such as drink driving or if they don't have a certificate of M.O.T.

Most criminal acts occur when someone does something to another with criminal intent, such as aiming a gun at someone's head in order for them to die. However there doesn't always have to be a criminal act as there is such a thing as crimes of commission due to omission. Crimes of commission due to omission are particularly contentious to deal with as it seems someone is being criminalised for a crime in which they didn't do anything but yet they can still be held liable. An example of such a crime is, if a passerby sees someone drowning in a lake or river but they do nothing to help, then they may still be held liable for the outcome of the situation as they did nothing to help the person. They are liable for definite if a person is related to someone who is in trouble. An example of this would be the case of R v Gibbins and Proctor. In this case, Gibbins and Proctor were convicted of the murder of Gibbins seven-year-old daughter, by starving her to death. The evidence in this case agrees says that the evidence was less against Gibbins than Proctor. This was because Gibbins gave Proctor money which was sufficient enough to provide for the wants of themselves and their children. Although this may be the case Gibbins was still convicted along with Proctor. This seems strange that he was convicted, because he gave money, but the fact that he didn't do anything himself to provide for his daughter, he just left it to his partner who neglected the young girl.

Another instance in which an actus reus can be formed is if someone fails to uphold a duty which they have taken on voluntarily, such as in the case of R v Instan. In this case, Instan had benen living with her aunt. The accused had been living with her aunt for some time and had been well looked after by her aunt. Her aunt was healthy and able to take care of herself regardless of the fact that she was 73 years of age. No one else lived in the house with the accused and her aunt and no-one looked after them as they were able to do themselves. But when the aunt took ill, the niece did nothing to look after her or help her in anyway. The accused took the woman's income for herself and didn't give the old woman any food or medication and the old woman was unable to take care of herself as she had became so frail. The accused also did not give any notice to anyone outside the house that her aunt was ill and needed medical aid although she had ample opportunities to do so. This conviction seems again slightly strange as although the accused didn't actually do anything, she was still held liable as she was failed to help the old woman and didn't give her anything to help her live through the illness and also failed to seek out medical help for the aunt

There have been a few cases in which an actus reus is said to have been formed but upon closer examination, they have been deemed ridiculous accusations. An example of this can be found in the case of Hogg v Macpherson. In this particular case, the accused was the driver of a horse pulled van , when a huge gust of wind blew the van over. This then caused the van to strike and break a street light. Under the legislation in force then, the appellant was liable to pay compensation, whether or not it was caused by negligence or by accident. The offence which the accused was convicted was that he failed to pay the sum wanted by the local authority. In the end, it was accepted that the appellant could have done nothing to avoid causing the damage. This seems absurd as it cannot be helped if the driver of the horse pulled van could have done anything to stop the van from blowing over, it also now seems like it would be a waste of time to take the appellant to court over something like this as it would be a waste of time and public money, but back then, something as accidental as this could and did amount to an actus reus.

There can also be an actus reus found in the attempts of a crime as the criminal intent is there, and although the crime was not fully completed, there was in some cases some criminal act, which is normally assault but not all the time as there can be crimes such as attempting to pervert the course of justice which basically means deliberatley trying to cover up something to stop a conviction being reached.

In conclusion, there are many ways in which an actus reus can be reached but here are three main ways. Also, there are many things which can amount to an actus reus being formed such as attepts, commission by omission, failing to uphold a legal duty, and also failing to uphold a duty taken on vouluntarily. These things may not always be deliberate, as there are many things which are accidents yet can also amount to an actus reus. It also shows that there are many ways in which an actus reus can be formed without an actual criminal activity taken place.


Primary Sources

Edinburgh Municipal and Police Act 1879 s.93 (3)

Case Law

R v Gibbins & Proctor (1918) 13 Cr.App.R. 134

Hogg v Macpherson, 1928 S.L.T. 35

R v Instan [1893] 1 Q.B. 450


T.H. Jones & M.G.A. Christie Criminal Law (4th edn, Thomson. W Green, Edinburgh, 2008)


Westlaw (Hogg v Macpherson, 1928 S.L.T.3 35) date accessed 15 November 2009

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