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R v Church [1966] 1 QB 59

Various bases of manslaughter and necessary directions to the jury

Facts

Mr Church and the victim were in a van for sexual purposes. The victim started mocking him and a fight ensued. He knocked the victim semi-conscious. After his attempts to rouse her proved unsuccessful, he panicked, thought the victim was dead and threw her into the river. The victim’s gravely injured body was found in the River Ouse; the cause of death was drowning. Mr Church was convicted of manslaughter. He appealed his conviction.

Issue

Mr Church argued that the basis of his guilty verdict could not be criminal negligence, as the trial judge had only directed the jury on recklessness, nor provocation, as it was not adequate based on the facts. Thus, the only possible basis for manslaughter was that an unlawful act caused the death. He claimed, however, that the jury was misdirected on the relevance of his mistaken belief in the victim’s death when he threw her into the river, as mens rea is an essential element of manslaughter.

Held

The nature of directions given on criminal negligence have to be decided based on the circumstances of each case – in the present case, it was sufficient to direct the jury about utter recklessness. Secondly, the commission of an unlawful act does not in itself make a manslaughter conviction inevitable. It is only satisfied if the unlawful act is such that all reasonable people would realise that the act would subject the victim to the risk of at least some harm resulting from it. The trial judge had thus misdirected the jury by claiming that Mr Church’s belief in the victim’s death when he threw her into the river was irrelevant. However, despite the misdirection, there was no substantial miscarriage of justice on the whole because, on proper direction, the verdict would necessarily have been that of guilty.


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