Causation is an element of ‘Result Crimes’, in which the conduct itself does not constitute a crime, for example, shooting a gun, but rather the conduct along with it’s harmful consequence, for example, shooting a gun at a person and the person dying. It is this gap between the conduct and harmful result, which gives rise to the uncertainty as to who’s conduct caused the harmful result, and even if the harmful result was due to a human action, or just a natural event. When determining the chain of causal events leading up to a result, only the facts are relevant.
However, once the causes are determined, principles of law must be applied to identify which of these causal acts were unlawful, as a person cannot be convicted for an innocent act. Therefore, causation is a question of fact and law. The main method for identifying causes to a harmful result is the ‘But-For’ test, with which all actions but for which the harmful result would not have occurred, are causes of the result. In the majority of cases, questions of causation are simple, even in homicide cases where the burden of proof lies on the prosecution.
For example (1. 0), if A shoots B, and B drops dead on the spot, it does not have to be proven that it was the bullet from A’s gun entering B’s heart and preventing blood carrying oxygen to the body, which caused death, as it is obvious. Questions of causation become complicated when there is no obvious, direct single cause to a harmful result. In such cases, there can be an infinite number of ‘but-for’ causes, tracing back to the actions of Adam and Eve. The jury have to determine the significance of the defendant’s actions in relation to the result.
The ‘Reasonable-Foresight Principle’ states that significant causes are these actions which a reasonable person could foresee resulting in the harm. For example (1. 1), a guest at a Halloween party is so frightened by the costume of a new guest, they jump off the apartment balcony, in an attempt to escape. In this case, the jury will almost certainly rule that the ‘new guest’ is not a significant cause, in accordance with the principle. However, in the case of Roberts, the conviction was upheld as the jury believed the result was foreseeable form his actions.
Here, the judge must inform the jury that this burden lies upon them, and direct them on how to measure significance. To make causation even more complicated, substansive events can occur following the original harm action, which rob the original action of responsibility for the result. This is providing it can be found that the second act significantly altered the course of events, which would have occurred, following the first act. The person who committed the original act is still charged, but not for the result which occurred. These are known as ‘intervening acts’.
This is shown in Jordan, where the jury ruled that the hospital’s incompetence was more to blame for the victim’s death, rather than the original assailant, whose actions were not lethal, therefore the medical staff held responsible. The complications of what constitutes an intervening act, then arise. Firstly, the intervening act must be so abnormal, that a reasonable person would not foresee it occurring in the course of events following the original action. Secondly, intention for the result, or ‘causal energy’, of the actor’s (from the original and intervening act), must be measure.
The actor with the greater intention for the result which occurred, will be held responsible. Example (1. 2)-If a person is accidentally hit by a car while crossing the road, then stabbed and robbed by a vagrant while on the ground, the vagrant will be held responsible for the injuries caused, as his/her intention to cause harm was greater than that of the driver’s. Where possible intervening acts arise, the jury would undoubtedly require direction on how to determine whether the act is intervening, and such direction is vital to ensuring justice.
The complexity of causation does not end there! There are certain intervening acts which the courts are reluctant to assign responsibility for the result to. Such exemptions include non-voluntary acts by third parties, where the third party is acting out of duty and with good intentions- such as the emergency services (at present, euthanasia iis an exception to this). This is shown by the case of Pagett. This principle covers actions of medical staff, trying to intervene where the injury has already been inflicted by the criminal.
As they are intervening to change the path of events for the better, the courts adopt the liberal perspective that their actions should only be regarded in a positive manner. This is shown in Cheshire, where the appeal judge ruled that eventhough negligence in the medical treatment of the victim was the immediate cause of death, this should not displace the responsibility from the accused, unless the “negligent treatment was so independent of his acts, and itself so potent in causing death”, the jury regard the contribution of his acts insignificant in comparison, as was the case in Jordan.
This belief is mimicked in Malcherek and Steel. Where the above issues arise, the judge should, if not intervene, direct the jury as to the moral issues involved. Furthermore, in English criminal law, the victim can bare no responsibility for the crime committed, even if it were not for their negligence or refusal to seek remedy, the harm result would not have been so severe. This is displayed in the case of Blaue.
This liberal concept that a person should never be discriminated against for acting within their basic rights (for example: freedom of religion; freedom to move freely in the world as they please) is quite a difficult one for a jury to uphold. For example (1. 3), ‘in the eyes of the law’ a female doctor who is sexually assaulted whist walking through a town centre in mid-afternoon, is indifferent to a prostitute who is sexually assaulted whist walking through a ‘red-light’ district at midnight. However, the jury consist of lay people from all aspects of society, who are susceptible to the common stereotypes and prejudices society breeds.