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The definitions of many criminal offences include terms relating to the 'intention' of the perpetrator. For example, to a large extent the distiction between murder and manslaughter corresponds to the distinction between 'intending' and act and 'recklessly allowing' it to happen. Intention is not usually defined; instead it is frequently for the jury to decide, as a matter of fact, whether the accused had the intention to carry out the act charged. In most cases, it is argued, juries need no help in understanding the term. But consider this case: a man sets fire to his restaurant in the busiest part of the day, in the hope of profitting from an insurance payout. Naturally, many people die. Does the perpetrator 'intend' to kill them? Clearly he would have forseen the likelihood that his actions would lead to death or injury, and accepted that this was the likely outcome. Even though he did not purposefully kill his customers, the restauranteur purposely carried out an act that led to their deaths, in full knowledge of the likelihood of this eventuality.

In general, intention is different from 'motivation' or 'desire'. However earnestly I desire the deaths of TV game show hosts, I do not necessarily 'intend' to kill them. While almost everyone is agreed that if I expressly set out to kill TV game show hosts, then I have 'intention' to kill them. This is called 'direct intention'. However, 'intention' in law is not as narrow as this. At the opposite end of the 'intention scale' it is argued that I intend some consequences if it is likely that my actions will have those consequences. Over the last thirty years the meaning of intention has varied between these two extremes.

  • In Hyam v DPP (1974) the House of lords accepted that the accused 'intends' the conseqences of his actions if it is highly probable that those consequences will arise from the actions. However, there was no general agreement on how probable the consequences should be. Lord Hailsham used the terms inseparable consequences and morally certain consequence, while Lord Diplock was prepared to accept likely. This judgement caused some confusion because it made intention difficult to distinguish from Recklessness.
  • In R v moloney (1985) it was held that in most cases a jury would not need to be directed as to the meaning of 'intention'; a common-sense understanding was adequate. However, Lord Bridge issued guidelines to the this effect: it could be assumed that if the accused realized that the results of his action were the natural consequences of the action, this gave additional weight to the view that the consequences were intended. The jury would still have to consider other factors along with this one. of the actions. This definition is somewhat narrower than the highly probable consequences of Hyamn, but perhaps slightly broader than Lord Hailsham's inseparable consequences. In any event, it was not long before the inexactness of the term natural consequences gave rise to another complicated case.
  • In R v hancock and shankland (1986) Lord Scarman approved Lord Bridges guidelines in R v Moloney, but stressed that natural consequences should be interpreted to indicate that a high likelihood of the action having the specified consequences increased the likelihood that the consequence was intended, but it was still not enough on its own. Scarman also reiterated that it is largely a matter for the jury to use common sense to decide whether an act was intended.
  • In R v neddrick (1986) the Court of Appeal accepted the House of lords ruling in R v Moloney, and allowed that forsight of the consequences of an action only allows a jury to infer intent if the consequences are virtually certain (Lane LCJ). In previous cases the Court of Appeal had tended to follow the ruling in Hyam.
  • In R v woolin (1997) the Court of Appeal tried to broaden the definition of intention again, but the House of lords restated that the principle in Neddrick should apply. However, the wording of the judgement uses the term find intent rather than infer intent which has let some authorities to claim that the Lords are supporting the view that a virtually certain consequence is the same as an intended consequence, where Neddrick only suggests that it increases the probability of intention.

At present the position on intention appears to be as follows: if the accused carries out action A, with consequence C, then

  • the accused intended C if he carried out A in order expressly to bring about C;
  • the accused intended C if he carried out action A, from which C was virtually certain, in which case
  • the accused need not have a motive or desire to bring about C.

Note that the meaning of 'intention' is also contentious in the law of tort; see, for example, Trespass to the person.

Criminal Law