Principal offender

A principal is one who carries out the substantive offence he performs the conduct element of the offence with the required fault element.

If there are several participants in a crime it follows that they all may well be taking different roles. The principal offender is the person considered responsible for carrying out the the actus reus and therefore the one most immediately linked with the crime. Other, secondary offender/s, may have participated by encouraging the act or handing the perpetrator the weapon but there will remain one crime. The normal rules of causation apply and the principal offender is the person whose act is the cause of the actus reus and he is the perpetrator of the offence. They are the direct cause of the actus reus. As is consistent with the law regarding criminal liability the principal must, in addition, have the requisite mens rea for for the offence in question.


In many cases the establishment of who is responsible as the main perpetrator and therefore the principal offender will be a straight forward process, but in some cases there may be more than one principal. This is an important point because appropriate charges need to be laid against all the principal offenders in order that all the perpetrators can be brought before the criminal courts. In the case of certain specific offences it is necessary, by virtue of the very nature and definition of the offence, that there are two or more principals for the offence to be committed in any event. Riot and affray are such offences.


It is not enough that someone is 'involved' in some way and it must be shown that they contributed to the actus reus in order that they can be properly considered to be a joint principal. Co-principals or joint principals arise where more than one person is responsible for the actus reus and they have the necessary mens rea.


In Tyler v Whatmore (1976) a passenger, although sitting next to the driver in the front passenger seat, was found to be a driver when she lent across the driver and steered the car while the driver continued to use the other controls. The passenger was held to have contributed to the actus reus and therefore found to be a joint principal. The passenger appealed but this was dismissed and the conviction upheld.


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