Explain what is meant by the term causation in criminal law and assess how the courts have interpreted its significance in determining criminal liability.

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Explain what is meant by the term ‘causation’ in criminal law and assess how the courts have interpreted its significance in determining criminal liability.

With a conduct crime an act or an omission is enough to establish the actus Reus e.g. someone punches another person; the act of punching is sufficient to establish the actus Reus. With a result crime the act or omission must result in a given consequence e.g. if a person stabs someone and they die of the injuries. The act of stabbing has resulted in the consequence of the death.


Causation is only relevant to result crimes most cases involve homicide where the act or omission of the defendant has resulted in the consequences necessary for this offence of death. The causation element will be established if the act or omission of the D actually caused the death.

Causation is a matter for the jury to decide from the facts of the case and also with direction from the judge.

In the case of Pagett the following direction was given to help establish causation in law:

'Simply that in law the accused's act need not be the sole cause, or even the main cause, of the victims death, it being enough that his act contributed significantly to that result'.

In the case of Kimsey the court of appeal held that instead of using the Latin phrase de minimis, it was acceptable to tell the jury it must be 'more than a slight or trifling link'. There may be one person whose act contributed to the death. The defendant can be guilty even though his conduct was not the only cause of death. The above directions will be used for straightforward matters.


If a problem arises the judge may direct the jury with regard to the legal principles of causation. There are two main principles, which they have to apply, both of which must be satisfied for causation to be established. They are factual causation and legal causation.

With factual causation the defendant can only be guilty if the consequence would not have happened ‘but for’ the defendant’s conduct. This can be shown in Pagett where the defendant used his pregnant girlfriend as a shield while he shot at armed police officers they shot back and the girlfriend was killed. Pagett was convicted of her manslaughter she would not have died ‘but for’ his actions.

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If the consequence would have occurred anyway there is no liability this happened in White where the defendant put cyanide ion his mothers drink intending to kill her she died of a heart attack before drinking it. The defendant was not the factual cause of her death she was not guilty of murder but still guilty of attempted murder.

Legal causation is closely associated with moral responsibility it looks at blameworthiness (culpability) of the accused.

The case of Dalloway can be used to distinguish between factual and legal causation.

In Dalloway even though factual causation was established using the ...

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