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Actus Reus

CHAPTER ONE

ACTUS REUS
A person cannot usually be found guilty of a criminal offence unless two elements are present:
an actus reus (AR), Latin for guilty act; and mens rea (MR), Latin for guilty mind. Both the
actus reus and mens rea refer to more than just moral guilt. Each of these terms have a very
specific meaning, which varies according to the crime.
Crimes of strict liability are the exception to the general rule that a person to be guilty of of an
offence must not only have behaved in a particular way, but must also have a particular mental
attitude to that behaviour.
Under statute or under the common law, the definition of a particular crime will contain the
required actusreus and mens rea for the offence. It is the duty of the prosecution to prove both of
these elements of the crime. The standard of proof upon which the prosecution must prove both
these elements is one of beyond reasonable doubt: [Woolmington v DPP]. In the event this is
not made out then, the accused must be acquitted. This would be in line with the presumption
that in English law all persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The essence of the actus reus (AR) is that sometimes it is said to comprise of an "act"; or a
prohibited result" and sometimes of "surrounding circumstances";
For example, the crime of rape requires unlawful sexual intercourse by a man with a person
without their consent. The lack of consent is a surrounding circumstancewhich
exists independently of the accuseds act. Stabbing someone, may form the actus reus of murder
if the victim dies, or of causing grievous bodily harm if the victim survives.In this latter example
the act or behaviour of the accused is the same but the consequences of of it, i.e dies or still
survives dictate whether the actus reus of murder or grievous bodily harm has been committed.
From an examination point of view, students must take note that when they are asked to "advise
A", what they have to do is to identify A's actions and identify the possible offences for each and
every one of his actions. Once students have identified the possible offences, it is important for
them to examine if such offences can be proved against "A" and to do this, students have to
discuss both actus reus as well as mens rea (which will be dealt with in Chapter 2) elements of
the offences identified.
In other words, it is important for every student of criminal law to know at their fingertips the
actus reus and mens rea elements of every offence in their syllabus.

Types of Actus Reus/Classification of offences:

Sometimes the crimes are classified as follows :


Conduct / act crimes :
Some
crimes
will
require
the
prosecution
to
prove
that
the
defendant committed some prohibited act, for eg., the offence of incitement is fully
constituted once the prosecution is able to establish that the defendant urged, encouraged or
spurred on by advice the commission of a criminal offence by any person. The conduct itself
constitutes the actus reus and in this offence the prosecution is not required to establish more that
this. There is no need to show that the conduct led to any particular result. This type of offence is
called a conduct crime. Other examples are S9(1)(a) Theft Act '68 and s2 of the Road Traffic
Act, 1988.
Consequence / result crimes:
Some crimes may require not only that the defendant commits some act, but that the commission
of this act leads to certain prohibited consequences, for example death or grevious bodily harm
(GBH). Therefore, the actus reus consists not only of an act but also of certain consequences.
This type of crime is called a result crime. Some examples are murder,
manslaughter, s20, s18, s47, of the Offences Against the Persons Act, 1861.

Status crimes:
There are yet other crimes where the actus reus consists not in showing a particular act or a
result, but in showing a certain state of affairs to exist. For eg, being found in possession of a
dangerous drug or being found in the UK without permission to stay. These type of offences are
called status offences.
R v Larsonneur
Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent

Principles relevant in establishing the actus reus :


THREE main principles relate to proof of the AR of any crime.
(a)

The accused must have committed the crime by his voluntary act thus the question that
arises here is what happens where the act was automatic or brought about by an
unconscious act. Here the defendant will be seeking to rely on the defence of
AUTOMATISM, a defence that negatives the actus reus. Only defence which negates the
actus reus.

(b)

The accused must have committed the actus reus by a positive act. Here the question is
what happens if the result occurs from the defendants failure to act. The prosecution will
still be able to establish liability in some situations . This is known as OMISSION
liability.

(c)

The accused must have caused the consequence (if any) of the crime. The consideration
here is what happens where there are intervening events that contribute to a particular
consequence, here the issue is whether the defendant caused the consequence or did that
intervening act break the chain of CAUSATION.

From an examination perspective, it is very clear that it is very important for a student to
appreciate the following points:

(i)

to understand the definition of an offence and to be able to identify the actus reus and
mens rea of the offence;

(ii)

to understand the operation of the defence of automatism and how it acts to negate
the actusreus;

(iii)

the application of omission liability and the relevant principles regulating omissions
and the role of English law in omission liability; and

(iv)

the meaning of causation and what constitutes causation and in what circumstances
intervening acts will break the chain of causation.