Tuesday, 28 June 2011


Causation is a particular issue in homicide cases as it must be proven that the act has caused the consequences. The act must cause the death and in many instances this is not straightforward.

D is only responsible where his acts are both a factual and legal cause of V’s death. There are no rules laid down in statute, the rules have been devised by judges from cases appearing before them.

Factual causation

The prosecution must ask would the victim have died but for D’s conduct?, The defendant not liable if V would have died anyway

 White 1910

A son poisoned his mother by adding cyanide to her drink. However before the cyanide could take effect she died of a heart attack. The court asked, would the defendant have died but for the defendants actions. The answer here was ‘yes’. The defendant was found guilty of attempted murder.

Legal Causation

This is closely related with moral responsibility. D’s act must be more than a minimal cause of death. It asks whether the defendant is morally to blame.

Marchant and Muntz (2004)

A motorcyclist impailed himself on the grab attached to a loading vehicle after driving 80mph. It was held that the driver and farmer were not morally responsible. Even if the grab was concealed by a guard, the driver would still have died.

When the law is deciding who is legally responsible for V’s death it insists that D’s actions are an operative and substantial cause of the forbidden consequences. One problem here, this is a very elastic term, as seen in the cases.

Some general rules on causation as decided by cases

1.    D must take his Victim as he finds him – this is known as the Thin Skull Rule. 

Hayward 1908

          The defendant chased his wife into the street and kicked. Surprisingly she died from this injury. She was discovered to have been suffering from a persistent thyrus gland which meant she could die from experiencing a strong emotion. The defendant was found guilty of causing death.

Blaue 1975

The defendant attacked an 18 year old girl with a knife causing a serious stab wound which pierced the lung. She was taken to hospital she was told she was in need of a blood transfusion. The girl refused because she was a Jehovah witness and died. The court held that she would not have died but for the defendants stab wound and the defendant was found guilty of causing her death.

2. An intervening act may break the Chain of Causation (novus actus interveniens)
An intervening act may happen in several ways:

a) Intervening act of a third Party. For example; Does medical negligence break the chain of causation?

Jordan 1956

The wound for which the victim had been admitted to hospital had almost healed. The hospital then administered incorrect medical treatment and the victim died. The court declared the treatment to be ‘palpably wrong’ and the intervening act was held to have broken the chain of causation.

Smith (1959)

A fight broke out between the defendant and the victim in an army barrack, where the victim was stabbed several times. A fellow soldier attempted to carry the victim to the medical wing where he dropped him a number of times. When the victim finally arrived he was in need of a blood transfusion. Unfortunately the hospital did not have the facilities and the victim died. The court held the wound to be the operative and substantial cause of death

Cheshire 1991

The defendant and the victim got into an argument in a fish and chip shop. The defendant shot the victim in the stomach and the doctors performed a tracheotomy. The windpipe was so narrow that the victim died two months later. The defendant argued that the negligence of the hospital broke the chain of causation. However, the court held that the original wound was still the operative and substantial cause of death.

This case emphasises the fact that only extraordinary cases will break the chain of causation. This is because the courts are reluctant to absolve the defendant from responsibility.

Mellor 1996

Mellor attacked a 71 year old man. He was taken to hospital with chest pain and facial bruising and he died 2 days later. The defendant argued that the victim’s pneumonia that resulted in death was caused by a lack of oxygen. The Court of Appeal upheld Mellor’s conviction for manslaughter.

-          Turning off a life support machine will not result in a break in the chain of causation.

Malcherek, Steel (1981)

 2 separate cases heard together. M stabbed his wife nine times and Steel randomly attacked a woman in Bradford. Both victims ended up on a life support machine that was subsequently turned off. The murder conviction was upheld.

b  Actions of Victim

What happens if during “the incident” the victim does something so he is injured or even dies, is the chain of causation broken, is the defendant still responsible?

Roberts 1972

The defendant gave the victim a lift and made sexual advances to her and she jumped out the car and injured herself. It was held that his actions were the operative and
substantial cause of injuries. The courts had introduced the daftness test. Has  the victim done something so daft or unexpected that no reasonable person could be expected to foresee it. The courts held that it was reasonably foreseeable that the girl may jump out the car.

Williams and Davis 1992

The appellant gave a lift to a hitchhiker and then tried to rob him. The hitchhiker jumped out of the car and died of head injuries. The court held that the act of escaping was not proportional to the threats and there was held to be a break in the chain of causation.

Marjoram 1999

Majoram with a gang of youths kicked down the hostel door of the victim and caused the victim to jump out of the window. It was held that a reasonable person could foresee such a reaction.

c.  Victim Self-Neglect

In Dear 1996 D slashed V with Stanley knife, severing artery. For reasons unclear V failed to do anything to stop blood flow. D convicted of murder. D appealed that V committed suicide, either by reopening wounds himself, or if they opened by failing to get medical treatment. CA dismissed appeal, injuries inflicted on V were an operative and substantial cause of death

-          Using the victim as a shield.

Pagett (1983)

The police shot at the defendant whilst trying to arrest Pagett. He grabbed a girl and used her as a shield. The police shot and a girl was injured. It was held that Pagett had caused the injuries.


Clarkson and Keating argue that causation has developed on a case by case basis. A coherent approach is lacking and it is not governed by any underlying principles. Whether or not causation is established is no more than a ‘moral reaction.’

Causation is shaped by public policy and too often the decision of the courts reflects the need to protect institutions such as hospitals and the police. In the case of  Pagett for example, the morally reprehensible actions of the police were held to be no more than an intervening act and  Pagett was deemed liable for the death of the girl. This is a staggering judgment, especially as in a subsequent civil case, the courts declared the police to be negligent and ordered damages to be paid to the victim’s parents.

Cheshire and Smith expose judicial reluctance to absolve the defendant from liability where the victims have received negligent hospital treatment. The courts have made their policy clear. It is only in the most extra-ordinary and unusual case that medical negligence will break the chain of causation. Hospital resources are limited and assailants should not escape liability just because the victim did not receive the best treatment. This contrasts starkly with Dias (2001) where a defendant supplied drugs and to the victim who self injected and died from an overdose. It was held that self injection amounted to a break in the chain of causation. The courts were willing to absolve the defendant from responsibility.

The decision in Blaue (1975) can be criticised for its harshness, especially where the principle is extended to religious beliefs.


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