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INVOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER CASES
1. AN UNLAWFUL ACT
R v Franklin (1883) 15 Cox CC 163
The defendant while walking along a pier, took up a “good sized
box” from a stall and threw it into the sea where it struck a swimmer and
killed him. The defendant was guilty of manslaughter as death arose from an
unlawful act, ie taking another’s property and throwing it into the sea.
The defendant pointed a loaded gun at his friend in jest. He did not intend
to injure or alarm the victim and the victim was not alarmed. There were two
bullets in the chambers but neither was in the chamber opposite the barrel.
Because they did not understand how a revolver works, both thought there was no
danger in pulling the trigger. But when the defendant did so, the barrel rotated
placing a bullet opposite the firing pin and the victim was killed. The
defendant was not guilty of a criminal assault or battery because he did not
foresee that his victim would be alarmed or injured.
R v Arobieke  Crim LR 314
The defendant had been convicted of manslaughter on the basis that his
presence at a railway station had caused the victim, whom he knew to be
terrified of him, to attempt an escape by crossing the railway tracks, with the
result that he was electrocuted. The Court of Appeal quashed the conviction on
the ground that there had been no criminal act by the defendant, as the evidence
did not show that the defendant had physically threatened or chased the
R v Cato  1 WLR 110
The defendant and the victim agreed to inject each other with heroin. The
victim had consented to a number of such injections during the course of an
evening. The following morning he was found to have died from the effects of the
drug-taking. The defendant was convicted of maliciously administering a noxious
substance contrary to s23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and of
manslaughter, either on the basis that his unlawful act had caused death, or on
the basis that he had recklessly caused the victim’s death.
The Court of Appeal held that the defendant had been properly convicted. Lord
Widgery CJ stated that heroin was a noxious substance on the basis that it was
likely to injure in common use, and that the defendant had administered it
knowing of its noxious qualities. The victim’s consent to suffer harm of this
nature could never relieve the defendant of his liability, or destroy the
unlawfulness of the defendant’s act.
2. THE ACT MUST BE DANGEROUS
R v Church  1 QB 59
The defendant had gone to his van with a woman for sexual purposes. She
mocked his impotence and he had attacked her, knocking her out. The defendant
panicked, and wrongfully thinking he had killed her, threw her unconscious body
into a river, where she drowned. The defendant was convicted of manslaughter. He
had acted unlawfully towards the victim in a way that sober and reasonable
people would appreciate involved risk of injury to the victim.
Edmund-Davies J provided a definition of dangerousness when he stated: “…
the unlawful act must be such as all sober and reasonable people would
inevitably recognise must subject the other person to, at least, the risk of
some harm resulting therefrom, albeit not serious harm…”
R v Dawson (1985) 81 Cr App R 150
The defendant and two other men carried out an attempted robbery at a petrol
station. The cashier at the petrol station was a 60 year old man who, unknown to
the defendants, suffered from a heart disease. Dawson had pointed a replica
handgun at the victim and his partner had banged a pick-axe handle on the
counter. Money was demanded, but the victim pressed the alarm button and the
defendants fled empty handed. Shortly afterwards the victim collapsed and died
from a heart attack.
The defendants were convicted and successfully appealed to the Court of
Appeal, following a misdirection by the trial judge. Watkins LJ held that
(a) if the jury acted upon the basis that emotional disturbance was enough to
constitute harm then, they would have done so upon a misdirection. A proper
direction would have been that the requisite harm is caused if the unlawful act
so shocks the victim as to cause him physical injury. (b) Regarding the test for
determining whether or not the unlawful act was dangerous, he stated: “This
test can only be undertaken upon the basis of the knowledge gained by a sober
and reasonable man as though he were present at the scene of the crime and
watched the unlawful act being performed … he has the same knowledge as the
man attempting to rob and no more.”
Thus, the reasonable man must be taken to know only the facts and
circumstances which the defendant knew. It was never suggested that any of the
defendants knew that their victim had a bad heart; therefore the reasonable man
would not know this.
R v Watson  1 WLR 684
The defendant had burgled a house occupied by an 87 year old man who suffered
from a heart condition. The defendant disturbed the victim, and verbally abused
him, but made off without stealing anything. The police were called shortly
afterwards, and a local council workman arrived to repair the windows broken by
the defendant in gaining entry. An hour and a half after the burglary the victim
had a heart attack and died. The defendant was convicted of manslaughter but
appealed successfully on the issue of causation (as to which see below).
As to the nature of the unlawful act however, the Court of Appeal recognised
that, following Dawson and applying the test established by Watkins LJ, the
unlawful act had to be dangerous in the sense that all sober and reasonable
persons would foresee that it created a risk of some physical harm occurring to
the victim, but added that in applying this test, the reasonable person was to
be imbued with all the knowledge that the defendant had gained throughout his
burglarious trespass (ie his realisation of the victim’s frailty) and not just
the defendant’s limited or non-existent knowledge at the moment he first entered
Note: On this basis therefore, the burglary did constitute a dangerous
unlawful act, but only because the court assumed that the defendant, during the
course of the unlawful act, must have become aware of the frailty of the victim.
R v Ball  Crim LR 730
The defendant had been involved in a dispute with his neighbour, the victim,
over her parking her vehicle on his land. The victim, accompanied by two men,
called on the defendant to investigate the disappearance of her vehicle. An
argument developed which culminated in the defendant grabbing a handful of
cartridges, loading his shotgun, and firing at the victim. The victim was killed
in the attack. The defendant was acquitted of murder, on the basis that he had
honestly believed that he had loaded the gun with blank cartridges and had only
intended to frighten the victim, but was convicted of manslaughter.
The defendant appealed on the basis that the trial judge had erred in
directing the jury as to how they should have assessed the ‘dangerousness’ of
his unlawful act, in that they had not been told to bear in mind the defendant’s
mistaken belief, that he was firing blanks, when applying the Dawson test. In
dismissing the appeal, the Court of Appeal held that once it was established
that the defendant had intentionally committed an unlawful act, the question of
its dangerousness was to be decided by applying the objective test (as in Dawson). The court refused to impute to the reasonable man the defendant’s
mistake of fact, ie believing the live cartridges to be blanks.
3. SUBSTANTIAL CAUSE OF DEATH
R v Dalby  1 WLR 425
The defendant was a drug addict who lawfully obtained drugs on prescription.
He gave some of the tablets to the victim, also known to be a drug addict. The
victim had consumed a large quantity of the drug in one session, and
subsequently injected himself with other substances. The following morning he
was found to have died of a drug overdose.
The defendant was convicted of unlawful act manslaughter, based on his
unlawful supply of the controlled drug, and he appealed on the basis that his
supply of the drug was not a dangerous act which had operated as the direct
cause of death. He contended that the death was due to the victim’s act in
consuming such a large dose of the drug in such a short space of time. The Court
of Appeal allowed the appeal, Waller LJ holding that the defendant’s act had not
in any event been the direct cause of death, but had merely made it possible for
the victim to kill himself. His Lordship stated that where manslaughter was
based on an unlawful and dangerous act, it had to be an act directed at the
victim which was likely to cause immediate injury, albeit slight.
R v Mitchell  2 WLR 938
The defendant, having become involved in an argument whilst queuing in a post
office, pushed an elderly man, causing him to fall accidentally on the deceased,
an elderly woman, who subsequently died in hospital from her injuries. The
defendant was convicted of unlawful act manslaughter. He unsuccessfully appealed
on the ground that his unlawful act had not been directed at the victim.
Staughton J held that although there was no direct between the
defendant and the victim, she was injured as a direct and immediate result of
his act. Thereafter her death occurred. The only question was one of causation
and the jury had concluded that the victim’s death was caused by the defendant’s
act. The actions of the elderly man in falling on the victim were entirely
foreseeable and did not break the chain of causation between the defendant’s
assault and the victim’s death. Dalby was distinguishable on its facts as a case
where the victim was not injured as a direct and immediate result of the
defendant’s act. In addition, the court saw no reason of policy for holding that
an act calculated to harm A cannot be manslaughter if it in fact kills B: see Latimer (1886).
R v Goodfellow (1986) 83 Cr App R 23
The defendant had deliberately fire bombed his own council house in the hope
that he would be rehoused by the council. His wife and children, who had been in
the house, were killed in the ensuing blaze. He appealed against his conviction
for manslaughter on the ground that his unlawful act (criminal damage) had not
been directed at the victims as required by Dalby. The Court of Appeal held that Dalby should not be construed as requiring proof of an intention on the part of
the defendant to harm the victims. It was to be viewed as an authority on
causation, in that the prosecution had to establish that there had been no fresh
intervening cause between the defendant’s act and the death.
R v Watson  1 WLR 684
(For facts see above.) The defendant appealed successfully on the ground that
his counsel had been denied a sufficient opportunity to address the jury on the
issue of whether the excitement caused by the arrival of the police and the
council workman could have taken over as the operating and substantial cause of
death. (Note: But did this predictable event break the chain of causation?)
4. MENS REA
DPP v Newbury and Jones  AC 500
The defendants, both teenage boys, had thrown a piece of paving stone from a
railway bridge onto a train which had been passing beneath them. The object
struck and killed the guard who had been sitting in the driver’s compartment.
The defendants were convicted of manslaughter, and unsuccessfully appealed, on
the ground that they had not foreseen that their actions might cause harm to any
other person. Lord Salmon explained that a defendant was guilty of manslaughter
if it was proved that he intentionally did an act which was unlawful and
dangerous and that act caused death, and that it was unnecessary that the
defendant had known that the act in question was unlawful or dangerous.
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