Principles of criminal law

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The English notion of criminal law is not developed from first principles, nor from religious stipulations (although these are influential), but rather from the moral and common-sense views of society. This leads to two important considerations:

  • The law's view of what is criminal changes over time. For example, suicide was once a criminal offence, now it is not;
  • It can be surprisingly difficult to define what consititutes a criminal offence. For example, there is no statutory definition of 'murder'.

Because crimes are, in a sense, offences against the state, criminal prosecutions are brought by the Crown, not by the victim.

Elements of a criminal offence. In general, a criminal offence has been committed if some kind of prohibited harm results, and some person is culpable for it. Usually it will be necessary to show that the act that caused the harm, or the state of affairs leading to the harm, was coincident in time with the culpability. Many defences hinge on this point.

English law does not regard state of mind itself as criminal; an act (perhaps of omission) is necessary.

Criminal cases compared with torts, etc. On the whole, criminal cases can be distinguished from civil ones by the fact that some sort of moral censure is implied in the conviction. There is a surprising uniformity of view about what is immoral, at least for serious matters. This means that, on occasion, the law has to be interpreted in such a way that the judgement of a court is in accord with 'moral common sense'. Harm may result in civil cases (see: Tort, for example) but in civil torts the overriding concern is usually the allowance of damages to right the wrong, not to apportion blame. In criminal cases, a decision whether the perpertrator is blameworthy is nearly always central to the case.

What is necessary for a criminal prosecution to succeed

In general, a criminal conviction requires a demonstration of culpability (see: Criminal culpability), and a demonstration that harm occurred (see: Actus Reus), and that these two states were coincident in time.

Criminal Law