Causation in criminal liability

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In criminal law, there are two aspects to causation. Firstly, the prosecution must prove that the acts or ommissions of the defendant was the cause of the consequence both in fact and in law.

Factual causation

The factual test for causation is the 'but for' test, which is proved if the jury are satisfied that 'but for' the act of the accused the victim would not have suffered the same consequences.

Legal causation

The first element of legal causation is that the act or ommission of the accused need not be the only cause, but it must be a 'substantial and operating cause'. The second element is that there must not be a novus actus interveniens that breaks the chain of causation. The courts have held that

In general the following are held to break the chain of causation:

  • wildly unpredictable responses of the victim, that contribute to the injury;
  • free, deliberate and informed acts of a third party;
  • extraordinary natural events.

On the other hand, the following are usually taken not to break the chain of causation:

  • predictable responses of the victim as in fright and flight cases;
  • innocent acts of other parties;
  • subsequent negligent medical treatment;
  • refusal of the victim to seek treatment for injuries;
  • unusual sensitivity of the victim, otherwise known as the thin skull rule.
  • reasonably foreseeable natural events.

See also causation in tort.



Criminal Law