Automatism is generally considered to be a state in which a person has no control over his or her actions.

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Laura Westwood


“Automatism means an act which is done by the muscles without any control by the mind such as a spasm, a reflex action or a convulsion; or an act done by a person who is not conscious of what he is doing such as an act done whilst suffering from concussion or sleepwalking.

Evaluate the accuracy of this statement by reference to the way in which the courts have recognised the defence of automatism.

     Automatism is generally considered to be a state in which a person has no control over his or her actions. It can then be argued that there is a lack of actus Reus, as the act is not voluntary, or that there is a lack of mens rea because the defendant is not conscious of what he is doing. In law there is a distinction between insane and non-insane automatism, which is very different to the medical meaning of the word.            The defence is not available where the defendant's mind is functioning, albeit imperfectly, in Broome v Perkins (1987), D could remember nothing about a journey, he was able to exercise some voluntary control over his movements, he had not been acting in an entirely involuntary manner. This approach was recently followed by the Court of Appeal who insisted that automatism is only available where there is a total loss of voluntary control as suggested in Attorney-General's Reference (No 2 of 1992) where D had been put into a trance-like state by the repetitive vision of the long flat road which reduced, but did not eliminate, awareness of what he was doing. This follows the quote above, as there is no suggestion of a knowledge of the defendant’s acts.  In Bratty, Lord Denning made it clear that an act is not involuntary simply because the offender simply could not resist the impulse or did not intend the consequences.

     The courts have employed very different approaches to the defence of automatism, which can be seen in the decisions in the conflicting cases of Charlson (1955) and Kemp (1957).  The former was suffering from a cerebral tumour, which caused him to lose control and experience motiveless outbursts of violence.  He hit his son over the head with a hammer and threw him into the river, inflicting grievous bodily harm.  The courts decided in this case that the jury should only consider automatism, with no need to take insanity into account, and the jury acquitted.

     It is possible to see the changing approach to the defence of automatism by the courts when comparing the decision in Charlson to that of Kemp (1957).  In this case the defendant was suffering from a condition that caused hardening of the arteries, causing him to go into a state of automatism and attack his wife with a hammer.  Although the defence attempted to follow Charlson, as the defendant was in a state of unconsciousness.  The Judge, however, decided “the law is not concerned with the origin of the disease or the cause of it but simply with the mental condition which has brought about the act.”  The judge attempted to narrow the defence of automatism by altering the rules laid down in McNaughten, making a distinction between a ‘disease of the mind’ and a ‘disease of the brain.’  “In my judgement the condition of the brain is irrelevant and so is the question of whether the condition of the mind is curable or incurable.”  It was decided that as Kemp’s condition was not yet a ‘disease of the mind’ at the point when he did the act as it was a physical rather than mental disease, this did not satisfy insane automatism.  Therefore, this case shows the inaccuracy of the statement from Bratty v Attorney General for Northern Ireland (1961), which defines automatism as “an act done by a person who is not conscious of what he is doing.” This effectively narrows the scope of the defence, whilst increasing the scope of legal insanity.

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     Therefore it can be seen that the law draws a distinction between automatism caused by a disease of the mind and that which is not caused by a disease of the mind.  The first, insane automatism follows the McNaughten rules, and if pleaded successfully, the verdict would be not guilty by reason of insanity.  However, the second, sane automatism, provides an acquittal, (Quick), unless the condition is self inflicted (Lipman (1970)).

     Following this there have been two approaches used by the court in determining sane or insane automatism.  First of which is the Continuing Danger theory. ...

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Summary: this is a very detailed and sophisticated essay that is written at a much higher level than expected for GCSE. Many degree level students would be pleased to be able to show the understanding of the defence shown here. Rating: *****