Criminal liability is generally thought to require an act, as opposed to an omission and that the act be performed voluntarily. Discuss the significance of these requirements.
Criminal liability is imposed when a person can be fairly blamed for causing a prohibited harm or result. This blame then justifies the enforcement of punishment, which depending on the seriousness of the crime, can range from a simple fine to a mandatory life imprisonment. The potential restriction of rights and freedom, as well as the social stigma of being labeled a criminal, hence demand that certain criteria should be met before someone can be liable for his actions. The requirements expressed in the statement above fall within the ambit of actus reus, the objective conduct element of a crime that is a precondition for criminal liability. We shall look at the significances of these requirements from various perspectives.
Actus reus is concerned with conduct. The term ‘conduct’ in the context of criminal law comprises of both acts and omissions. The distinction between them is important, because liability will only be imposed for an omission if a legal duty to act can be established. Katz suggested the following test: ‘if the defendant did not exist, would the harmful outcome in question still have occurred the way it did?’ There are several other distinctions, but the distinction that justifies a requirement of act over omission is this- A prohibited act creates a negative duty to act (for example, a duty to not kill) while a prohibited omission creates a positive duty to act (for example, a duty to save a drowning person). A negative duty grants an individual the liberty to act in any way as long as the prohibited act is not committed. On the other hand, a positive duty restricts an individual’s liberty as it forces the individual to give up other activities in order to perform that duty. The restriction of personal liberty when omission liability is imposed justifies the following ways in which courts deal with omissions.
The scope of criminal liability for acts is far wider than that of omissions. In result crimes, an actor is liable only if his conduct is the legal cause of the harm specified in the offence. If the cause is arises from a voluntary act, criminal liability will be imposed. However, if the cause is an omission, the actor will be liable only if he has a legal duty to act but failed to do so. In R v Sinclair, Sinclair was convicted of manslaughter because he owed the deceased, his close friend of many years, a legal duty of care. In contrast, Johnson was not convicted simply because he was not legally required to help the deceased, although his omission was as significant as Sinclair’s in causing death. The behaviour of Johnson ‘may have indeed been deplorable, but English law has not so far developed to the stage of treating it as criminal’.