Explain the meaning of the term 'causation'.

Factual Causation is based on the rule of the ‘but for’ test and legal causation is where the court has to decide if the defendant’s actions were the main cause of death.

Grade: A-C | £0.00.


The concept of causation is based upon the elements which go to make up criminal offences. Namely that there must be an actus reus or guilty act and the necessary state of mind or mens rea.

To say that actus reus means the guilty act is probably an over simplification. It is not enough that the defendant has committed an act, the term is wider in its application. It includes all the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offence including particular conduct, results or consequences or states of affairs. In some situations it also includes omissions but these are restricted to special circumstances. In the case of murder, for example, there must be an unlawful killing of a human being under the Queen’s peace with malice aforethought. If the victim does not die then there may be an alternative charge of one of the more serious assaults.

The prosecution must establish a causal link between the victim and the defendant. This is a matter of evidence which should be brought out at the trial. It is a matter for the jury at the end of the day. It is their decision i.e. whether to convict or to acquit. In this regard the jury is usually asked to consider two questions:

Did the acts of the accused bring about the resulting harm or, in other words was the defendant responsible for the factual cause of death?

Secondly, was the accused also responsible for the legal cause of death?

The law accepts that there needs to be some conduct which leads to a significant contribution otherwise it would not be fair to place responsibility upon the shoulders of the accused. In the case of R v White (1910) this issue was a turning point at the trial. The defendant had intended to kill his mother. He planned to poison her and poisoned her night time drink but she died of a heart attack and not from drinking the poisoned drink. As the defendant had not factually caused her death, he could not be found guilty of her murder but he was held responsible for attempted murder.

The 'but for' test is used to help the courts decide on the matter of factual cause. In effect the courts ask themselves the question 'but for the the conduct of the accused would the harm complained of occurred?' If the answer is yes then the defendant should properly be considered responsible. In addition to establishing whether the defendant was responsible for the factual cause of death ('the but for' rule) it must be shown that the defendant's act was a significant cause of the resulting harm i.e. the legal cause.

In R v Pagett (1983), Pagett had used his ex-girlfriend as a human shield in a stand off with police when he was holding the girlfriend hostage. During an exchange of gunfire with the police the girl was shot by the police and died. “The act of firing at the police, and the act of holding Gail Kinchen as a shield in front of him when the police might well fire shots in his direction in self-defence” were said to “constitute the actus reus of the manslaughter”. Pagett was found guilty of her unlawful death even though she was not killed by one of his bullets. He had not been the main cause of her death but she would not have been in that position 'but for' his actions. He was found guilty of manslaughter.

A chain of causation is sometimes referred to when the defendant triggers a series of events involving others who may also contribute to the harm or injury of the victim. The question then arises whether the original perpetrator should be responsible for the eventual outcome.
A break in the chain of causation means that, when this occurs, the courts interpret this to mean that the accused’s conduct was not the cause of the harm or injury. This is unusual but when it does occur it will result in the accused being acquitted. A break in the chain of causation arises where there is a new intervening act or
novus actus interveniens’. In these circumstances it may not be appropriate to find the defendant responsible for the eventual outcome as others have played an important part in bringing this about. The law may still want to blame the accused for the way in which he or she did act but the law will also want to hold others responsible for the part they played if they were the main contributor to the outcome.

The concept of a break in the chain of causation is important to both the jury and the victim. It is important that the jury has all the facts and understands what part others may have played in order to be fair in their decision. The victim’s family will also want to know who caused the outcome, to help them feel that society has correctly identified the wrongdoer and that they have been appropriately punished. This will enable the victim's families to move on with their lives.

In some cases the defendant may seek to blame others who may have been involved but this does not in itself relieve the defendant of responsibility. As in the case of R v Benge (1865) where a foreman was charged with manslaughter when railway tracks were not relaid in time and a train crashed as a result, killing many people. It was no defence to say that others had not acted as they should, Benge argued that, although he was negligent, the flagman had not gone far enough up the track and the train driver had not been paying close enough attention, what was material was that the accused's acts were a significant factor in causing the resulting deaths.

It is also important to society generally, as part of the criminal process, to enable society to identify behaviour which is wrong and unacceptable and to punish those who are

Two cases that probably best illustrate the principles of causation are the cases of
R v Smith (1959) and R v Jordan (1956).

R v Smith the defendant stabbed the victim who had to be hospitalised. On the way to the medics the victim was dropped twice and in addition received an incorrect diagnosis which resulted in poor medical treatment. The accused claimed that he was not responsible for the victim’s death. However the defendant’s arguments were not accepted and he was convicted of murder on the basis that his actions were the main cause of the victim’s death.

The case of
R v Jordan is distinguishable on the material facts of the case. In this case the victim was also stabbed and had to be treated in hospital. This resulted in the victim experiencing an allergic reaction to medication. The administration of the medication resumed on the instructions of one of the doctors despite the adverse reaction being noted. The victim subsequently died some days later by which time the stab wounds were healing. The Court of Appeal upheld the defendant’s appeal against his conviction and distinguished this from the case of R v Smith. Summing up the medical evidence Hallett J stated “a reasonable jury would not be satisfied that the defendant's acts had been the material cause of the victim's death.

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R v Pagett (BAILII: [1983] EWCA Crim 1 ) (1983)

In this essay the concept of causation is discussed and the term actus reus is explained.

The case of R v White (1910) is examined with regard to the 'but for' rule.

It looks at:

Cases discussed include:

R v Benge (1865)

R v Smith (1959) and

R v Jordan (1956).