Automatism is a defence in criminal law.

Automatism operates under the common law The case of Bratty v Attorney General of Northern Ireland [1961] provides a definition and guidance about what amounts to automatism. In general terms it is a loss of control by the ‘mind’ over the movements of the muscles. In other words, the acts of the accused are involuntary.

It can be argued that automatism is a complete defence in that not only does it negate the mens rea but is also contrary to the accepted principle that the conduct or behaviour of the accused must be voluntary.

Examples of what might amount to automatism include spasms, reflex actions and convulsions as well as conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and cerebral tumours.

Unlike other defences such as the special defences of provocation, diminished responsibility and suicide pact which only operate to reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter, the defence of automatism serves not only as a complete defence but is not limited.

It is a defence to any crime including crimes of strict liability. The loss of control, however, must be complete for the defence to be allowed.

In Broome v Perkins 1987, the defence was denied to a diabetes sufferer who still had some control over his vehicle. This limitation was confirmed in AG’s Reference (No 2 of 1992) 1994 where the Court of Appeal had to consider the implications of such conditions as ‘limited vision’ and driving without awareness’ in the case of lorries on long journeys on straight roads and motorways. The court concluded that the defence did not apply to cases where there was a reduced or partial loss of control.



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