Criminal law

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Criminal law is the body of law that relates to crime. It proscribes conduct perceived as threatening, harmful, or otherwise endangering to the property, health, safety, and moral welfare of people inclusive of one's self. Most criminal law is established by statute, which is to say that the laws are enacted by a legislature. Criminal law includes the punishment and rehabilitation of people who violate such laws.


Criminal law varies according to jurisdiction, and differs from civil law, where emphasis is more on dispute resolution and victim compensation, rather than on punishment or rehabilitation.

Criminal procedure is a formalized official activity that authenticates the fact of commission of a crime and authorizes punitive or rehabilitative treatment of the offender.


The first civilizations generally did not distinguish between civil law and criminal law. The first written codes of law were designed by the Sumerians. Around 2100–2050 BC Ur-Nammu, the Neo-Sumerian king of Ur, enacted written legal code whose text has been discovered: the Code of Ur-Nammu [1] although an earlier code of Urukagina of Lagash ( 2380–2360 BC ) is also known to have existed. Another important early code was the Code of Hammurabi, which formed the core of Babylonian law. [2] Only fragments of the early criminal laws of Ancient Greece have survived, e.g. those of Solon and Draco. [3]

The Old Bailey in London (in 1808) was the venue for more than 100,000 criminal trials between 1674 and 1834, including all death penalty cases. Old Bailey Microcosm edited.jpg
The Old Bailey in London (in 1808) was the venue for more than 100,000 criminal trials between 1674 and 1834, including all death penalty cases.

In Roman law, Gaius's Commentaries on the Twelve Tables also conflated the civil and criminal aspects, treating theft ( furtum ) as a tort. Assault and violent robbery were analogized to trespass as to property. Breach of such laws created an obligation of law or vinculum juris discharged by payment of monetary compensation or damages. The criminal law of imperial Rome is collected in Books 47–48 of the Digest. [4] After the revival of Roman law in the 12th century, sixth-century Roman classifications and jurisprudence provided the foundations of the distinction between criminal and civil law in European law from then until the present time. [5]

The first signs of the modern distinction between crimes and civil matters emerged during the Norman Invasion of England. [6] The special notion of criminal penalty, at least concerning Europe, arose in Spanish Late Scholasticism (see Alfonso de Castro), when the theological notion of God's penalty (poena aeterna) that was inflicted solely for a guilty mind, became transfused into canon law first and, finally, to secular criminal law. [7] The development of the state dispensing justice in a court clearly emerged in the eighteenth century when European countries began maintaining police services. From this point, criminal law formalized the mechanisms for enforcement, which allowed for its development as a discernible entity.

Objectives of criminal law

Criminal law is distinctive for the uniquely serious, potential consequences or sanctions for failure to abide by its rules. [8] Every crime is composed of criminal elements. Capital punishment may be imposed in some jurisdictions for the most serious crimes. Physical or corporal punishment may be imposed such as whipping or caning, although these punishments are prohibited in much of the world. Individuals may be incarcerated in prison or jail in a variety of conditions depending on the jurisdiction. Confinement may be solitary. Length of incarceration may vary from a day to life. Government supervision may be imposed, including house arrest, and convicts may be required to conform to particularized guidelines as part of a parole or probation regimen. Fines also may be imposed, seizing money or property from a person convicted of a crime.

Five objectives are widely accepted for enforcement of the criminal law by punishments: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation and restoration. Jurisdictions differ on the value to be placed on each.

Selected criminal laws

Many laws are enforced by threat of criminal punishment, and the range of the punishment varies with the jurisdiction. The scope of criminal law is too vast to catalog intelligently. Nevertheless, the following are some of the more typical aspects of criminal law.


The criminal law generally prohibits undesirable acts. Thus, proof of a crime requires proof of some act. Scholars label this the requirement of an actus reus or guilty act. Some crimes – particularly modern regulatory offenses – require no more, and they are known as strict liability offenses (E.g. Under the Road traffic Act 1988 it is a strict liability offence to drive a vehicle with an alcohol concentration above the prescribed limit). Nevertheless, because of the potentially severe consequences of criminal conviction, judges at common law also sought proof of an intent to do some bad thing, the mens rea or guilty mind. As to crimes of which both actus reus and mens rea are requirements, judges have concluded that the elements must be present at precisely the same moment and it is not enough that they occurred sequentially at different times. [9]

Actus reus

An English court room in 1886, with Lord Chief Justice Coleridge presiding LCJ-Court-1886.jpg
An English court room in 1886, with Lord Chief Justice Coleridge presiding

Actus reus is Latin for "guilty act" and is the physical element of committing a crime. It may be accomplished by an action, by threat of action, or exceptionally, by an omission to act, which is a legal duty to act. For example, the act of A striking B might suffice, or a parent's failure to give food to a young child also may provide the actus reus for a crime.

Where the actus reus is a failure to act, there must be a duty of care. A duty can arise through contract, [10] a voluntary undertaking, [11] a blood relation with whom one lives, [12] and occasionally through one's official position. [13] Duty also can arise from one's own creation of a dangerous situation. [14] On the other hand, it was held in the U.K. that switching off the life support of someone in a persistent vegetative state is an omission to act and not criminal. Since discontinuation of power is not a voluntary act, not grossly negligent, and is in the patient's best interests, no crime takes place. [15] In this case it was held that since a PVS patient could not give or withhold consent to medical treatment, it was for the doctors to decide whether treatment was in the patient's best interest. It was reasonable for them to conclude that treatment was not in the patient's best interest, and should therefore be stopped, when there was no prospect of improvement. It was never lawful to take active steps to cause or accelerate death, although in certain circumstances it was lawful to withhold life sustaining treatment, including feeding, without which the patient would die.

An actus reus may be nullified by an absence of causation. For example, a crime involves harm to a person, the person's action must be the but for cause and proximate cause of the harm. [16] If more than one cause exists (e.g. harm comes at the hands of more than one culprit) the act must have "more than a slight or trifling link" to the harm. [17]

Causation is not broken simply because a victim is particularly vulnerable. This is known as the thin skull rule. [18] However, it may be broken by an intervening act (novus actus interveniens) of a third party, the victim's own conduct, [19] or another unpredictable event. A mistake in medical treatment typically will not sever the chain, unless the mistakes are in themselves "so potent in causing death." [20]

Mens rea

Mens rea is another Latin phrase, meaning "guilty mind". This is the mental element of the crime. A guilty mind means an intention to commit some wrongful act. Intention under criminal law is separate from a person's motive [21] (although motive does not exist in Scots law). [22]

A lower threshold of mens rea is satisfied when a defendant recognizes an act is dangerous but decides to commit it anyway. This is recklessness. It is the mental state of mind of the person at the time the actus reus was committed. For instance, if C tears a gas meter from a wall to get the money inside, and knows this will let flammable gas escape into a neighbour's house, he could be liable for poisoning. [23] Courts often consider whether the actor did recognize the danger, or alternatively ought to have recognized a risk. [24] Of course, a requirement only that one ought to have recognized a danger (though he did not) is tantamount to erasing intent as a requirement. In this way, the importance of mens rea has been reduced in some areas of the criminal law but is obviously still an important part in the criminal system.

Wrongfulness of intent also may vary the seriousness of an offense and possibly reduce the punishment but this is not always the case. A killing committed with specific intent to kill or with conscious recognition that death or serious bodily harm will result, would be murder, whereas a killing effected by reckless acts lacking such a consciousness could be manslaughter. [25] On the other hand, it matters not who is actually harmed through a defendant's actions. The doctrine of transferred malice means, for instance, that if a man intends to strike a person with his belt, but the belt bounces off and hits another, mens rea is transferred from the intended target to the person who actually was struck.[Note: The notion of transferred intent does not exist within Scots' Law. In Scotland, one would not be charged with assault due to transferred intent, but instead assault due to recklessness.] [26]

Strict liability

Strict liability can be described as criminal or civil liability notwithstanding the lack of mens rea or intent by the defendant. Not all crimes require specific intent, and the threshold of culpability required may be reduced or demoted. For example, it might be sufficient to show that a defendant acted negligently, rather than intentionally or recklessly. In offenses of absolute liability, other than the prohibited act, it may not be necessary to show the act was intentional. Generally, crimes must include an intentional act, and "intent" is an element that must be proved in order to find a crime occurred. The idea of a "strict liability crime" is an oxymoron. The few exceptions are not truly crimes at all – but are administrative regulations and civil penalties created by statute, such as crimes against the traffic or highway code.

Fatal offenses

A murder, defined broadly, is an unlawful killing. Unlawful killing is probably the act most frequently targeted by the criminal law. In many jurisdictions, the crime of murder is divided into various gradations of severity, e.g., murder in the first degree, based on intent. Malice is a required element of murder. Manslaughter (Culpable Homicide in Scotland) is a lesser variety of killing committed in the absence of malice, brought about by reasonable provocation, or diminished capacity. Involuntary manslaughter, where it is recognized, is a killing that lacks all but the most attenuated guilty intent, recklessness.

Settled insanity is a possible defense.

Personal offenses

Many criminal codes protect the physical integrity of the body. The crime of battery is traditionally understood as an unlawful touching, although this does not include everyday knocks and jolts to which people silently consent as the result of presence in a crowd. Creating a fear of imminent battery is an assault, and also may give rise to criminal liability. Non-consensual intercourse, or rape, is a particularly egregious form of battery.

Property offenses

Property often is protected by the criminal law. Trespassing is unlawful entry onto the real property of another. Many criminal codes provide penalties for conversion, embezzlement, theft, all of which involve deprivations of the value of the property. Robbery is a theft by force. Fraud in the UK is a breach of the Fraud Act 2006 by false representation, by failure to disclose information or by abuse of position.

Participatory offenses

Some criminal codes criminalize association with a criminal venture or involvement in criminality that does not actually come to fruition. Some examples are aiding, abetting, conspiracy, and attempt. However, in Scotland, the English concept of Aiding and Abetting is known as Art and Part Liability. See Glanville Williams, Textbook of Criminal Law, (London: Stevens & Sons, 1983); Glanville Williams, Criminal Law the General Part (London: Stevens & Sons, 1961).

Mala in se v. mala prohibita

While crimes are typically broken into degrees or classes to punish appropriately, all offenses can be divided into 'mala in se' and 'mala prohibita' laws. Both are Latin legal terms, mala in se meaning crimes that are thought to be inherently evil or morally wrong, and thus will be widely regarded as crimes regardless of jurisdiction. Mala in se offenses are felonies, property crimes, immoral acts and corrupt acts by public officials. Mala prohibita, on the other hand, refers to offenses that do not have wrongfulness associated with them. Parking in a restricted area, driving the wrong way down a one-way street, jaywalking or unlicensed fishing are examples of acts that are prohibited by statute, but without which are not considered wrong. Mala prohibita statutes are usually imposed strictly, as there does not need to be mens rea component for punishment under those offenses, just the act itself. For this reason, it can be argued that offenses that are mala prohibita are not really crimes at all. [27]


Criminal law jurisdictions

International Criminal Court in The Hague Building of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.jpg
International Criminal Court in The Hague

Public international law deals extensively and increasingly with criminal conduct that is heinous and ghastly enough to affect entire societies and regions. The formative source of modern international criminal law was the Nuremberg trials following the Second World War in which the leaders of Nazism were prosecuted for their part in genocide and atrocities across Europe. The Nuremberg trials marked the beginning of criminal fault for individuals, where individuals acting on behalf of a government can be tried for violations of international law without the benefit of sovereign immunity. In 1998 an International criminal court was established in the Rome Statute. [28]

See also

International criminal law

National criminal law

Related Research Articles

Mens rea is the mental element of a person's intention to commit a crime; or knowledge that one's action or lack of action would cause a crime to be committed. It is a necessary element of many crimes.

Actus reus, sometimes called the external element or the objective element of a crime, is the Latin term for the "guilty act" which, when proved beyond a reasonable doubt in combination with the mens rea, "guilty mind", produces criminal liability in the common law−based criminal law jurisdictions of England and Wales, Canada, Australia, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, New Zealand, Scotland, Nigeria, Ghana, Ireland, Israel and the United States of America. In the United States, Some crimes also require proof of attendant circumstances and/or proof of a required result directly caused by the actus reus.

In criminal and civil law, strict liability is a standard of liability under which a person is legally responsible for the consequences flowing from an activity even in the absence of fault or criminal intent on the part of the defendant.

In Western jurisprudence, concurrence is the apparent need to prove the simultaneous occurrence of both actus reus and mens rea, to constitute a crime; except in crimes of strict liability. In theory, if the actus reus does not hold concurrence in point of time with the mens rea then no crime has been committed.

In law, attendant circumstances are the facts surrounding an event.

In criminal law, the intoxication defense is a defense by which a defendant may claim diminished responsibility on the basis of substance intoxication. Where a crime requires a certain mental state to break the law, those under the influence of an intoxicating substance may be considered to have reduced liability for their actions. With regard to punishment, intoxication may be a mitigating factor that decreases a prison or jail sentence. Numerous factors affect the applicability of the defense.

In criminal law, criminal negligence is a surrogate mens rea required to constitute a conventional as opposed to strict liability offense. It is not, strictly speaking, a mens rea because it refers to an objective standard of behaviour expected of the defendant and does not refer to their mental state.

An attempt to commit a crime occurs if a criminal has an intent to commit a crime and takes a substantial step toward completing the crime, but for reasons not intended by the criminal, the final resulting crime does not occur. Attempt to commit a particular crime is a crime, usually considered to be of the same or lesser gravity as the particular crime attempted. Attempt is a type of inchoate crime, a crime that is not fully developed. The crime of attempt has two elements, intent and some conduct toward completion of the crime.

An accessory is a person who assists in the commission of a crime, but who does not actually participate in the commission of the crime, meaning that the distinction between an accessory and a principal is a question of fact and degree:

A regulatory offence or quasi-criminal offence is a class of crime in which the standard for proving culpability has been lowered so a mens rea element is not required. Such offences are used to deter potential offenders from dangerous behaviour rather than to impose punishment for moral wrongdoing.

In criminal law and in the law of tort, recklessness may be defined as the state of mind where a person deliberately and unjustifiably pursues a course of action while consciously disregarding any risks flowing from such action. Recklessness is less culpable than intentional wickedness, but is more blameworthy than careless behaviour.

In criminal law, strict liability is liability for which mens rea does not have to be proven in relation to one or more elements comprising the actus reus although intention, recklessness or knowledge may be required in relation to other elements of the offense. The liability is said to be strict because defendants could be convicted even though they were genuinely ignorant of one or more factors that made their acts or omissions criminal. The defendants may therefore not be culpable in any real way, i.e. there is not even criminal negligence, the least blameworthy level of mens rea.

Manslaughter is a common law legal term for homicide considered by law as less culpable than murder. The distinction between murder and manslaughter is sometimes said to have first been made by the ancient Athenian lawmaker Draco in the 7th century BC.

Crimes Act 1900

The Crimes Act 1900, is a New South Wales statute that sets out the majority of criminal offences for the state of New South Wales in Australia. Along with the Crimes Act 1914, and the Federal Criminal Code Act 1995, these three pieces of legislation form the majority of criminal law for New South Wales.

English criminal law Legal system of England and Wales relating to crime

English criminal law concerns offences, their prevention and the consequences, in England and Wales. Criminal conduct is considered to be a wrong against the whole of a community, rather than just the private individuals affected. The state, in addition to certain international organisations, has responsibility for crime prevention, for bringing the culprits to justice, and for dealing with convicted offenders. The police, the criminal courts and prisons are all publicly funded services, though the main focus of criminal law concerns the role of the courts, how they apply criminal statutes and common law, and why some forms of behaviour are considered criminal. The fundamentals of a crime are a guilty act and a guilty mental state. The traditional view is that moral culpability requires that a defendant should have recognised or intended that they were acting wrongly, although in modern regulation a large number of offences relating to road traffic, environmental damage, financial services and corporations, create strict liability that can be proven simply by the guilty act.

Under United States law, an element of a crime is one of a set of facts that must all be proven to convict a defendant of a crime. Before a court finds a defendant guilty of a criminal offense, the prosecution must present evidence that, even when opposed by any evidence the defense may choose, is credible and sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed each element of the particular crime charged. The component parts that make up any particular crime vary depending on the crime.

Fault, as a legal term, refers to legal blameworthiness and responsibility in each area of law. It refers to both the actus reus and the mental state of the defendant. The basic principle is that a defendant should be able to contemplate the harm that his actions may cause, and therefore should aim to avoid such actions. Different forms of liability employ different notions of fault, in some there is no need to prove fault, but the absence of it.

In Australia, murder, like most criminal law, is defined by State legislation. In any jurisdiction within Australia, the maximum penalty for murder is life imprisonment; this is the mandatory penalty in Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Responsibility for criminal law and criminal justice in the United States is shared between the states and the federal government.

In English criminal law, an inchoate offence is an offence relating to a criminal act which has not, or not yet, been committed. The main inchoate offences are attempting to commit; encouraging or assisting crime; and conspiring to commit. Attempts, governed by the Criminal Attempts Act 1981, are defined as situations where an individual who intends to commit an offence does an act which is "more than merely preparatory" in the offence's commission. Traditionally this definition has caused problems, with no firm rule on what constitutes a "more than merely preparatory" act, but broad judicial statements give some guidance. Incitement, on the other hand, is an offence under the common law, and covers situations where an individual encourages another person to engage in activities which will result in a criminal act taking place, and intends for this act to occur. As a criminal activity, incitement had a particularly broad remit, covering "a suggestion, proposal, request, exhortation, gesture, argument, persuasion, inducement, goading or the arousal of cupidity". Incitement was abolished by the Serious Crime Act 2007, but continues in other offences and as the basis of the new offence of "encouraging or assisting" the commission of a crime.



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  9. This is demonstrated by R v. Church [1966] 1 QB 59. Mr. Church had a fight with a woman which rendered her unconscious. He attempted to revive her, but gave up, believing her to be dead. He threw her, still alive, in a nearby river, where she drowned. The court held that Mr. Church was not guilty of murder (because he did not ever desire to kill her), but was guilty of manslaughter. The "chain of events," his act of throwing her into the water and his desire to hit her, coincided. In this manner, it does not matter when a guilty mind and act coincide, as long as at some point they do. See also, Fagan v. Metropolitan Police Commissioner [1968] 3 All ER 442, where angry Mr Fagan would not take his car off a policeman's foot
  10. R v. Pittwood (1902) 19 TLR 37 – a railway worker who omitted to shut the crossing gates, convicted of manslaughter when someone was run over by a train
  11. e.g. the partner in Gibbons who was not a blood parent, but had assumed a duty of care
  12. R v. Stone and Dobinson [1977] QB 354, where an ill tended sister named Fanny could not leave bed, was not cared for at all and literally rotted in her own filth. This is gross negligence manslaughter.
  13. R v. Dytham [1979] QB 722, where a policeman on duty stood and watched three men kick another to death.
  14. R v. Miller [1983] 1 All ER 978, a squatter flicked away a still lit cigarette, which landed on a mattress. He failed to take action, and after the building had burned down, he was convicted of arson. He failed to correct the dangerous situation he created, as he was duty bound to do. See also, R v. Santana-Bermudez (2003) where a thug with a needle failed to tell a policewoman searching his pockets that he had one.
  15. Airedale NHS Trust v. Bland [1993] 1 All ER 821
  16. e.g. R v. Pagett [1983] Crim LR 393, where 'but for' the defendant using his pregnant girlfriend for a human shield from police fire, she would not have died. Pagget's conduct foreseeably procured the heavy police response.
  17. R v. Kimsey [1996] Crim LR 35, where 2 girls were racing their cars dangerously and crashed. One died, but the other was found slightly at fault for her death and convicted.
  18. e.g. R v. Blaue [1975] where a Jehovah's witness (who refuse blood transfusions on religious grounds) was stabbed and without accepting life saving treatment died.
  19. e.g. R v. Williams [1992] Crim LR 198 where a hitchhiker who jumped from a car and died, apparently because the driver tried to steal his wallet, was a "daft" intervening act. c.f. R v. Roberts [1972] Crim LR 27, where a girl getting drunk jumped from a speeding car to avoid sexual advances and was injured and R v. Majoram [2000] Crim LR 372 where thugs kicked in the victims door scared him to jumping from the window. These actions were foreseeable and therefore creating liability for injuries.
  20. per Beldam LJ, R v. Cheshire [1991] 3 All ER 670; see also, R v. Jordan [1956] 40 Cr App R 152, where a stab victim recovering well in hospital was given an antibiotic. The victim was allergic, but he was given it the next day too, and died. The hospital's actions intervened and pardoned the defendant through condemning themselves instead.
  21. R v. Mohan [1975] 2 All ER 193, intention defined as "a decision to bring about ... [the actus reus] no matter whether the accused desired that consequence of his act or not."
  22. see
  23. c.f. R v. Cunningham [1957] 2 All ER 863, where the defendant did not realise, and was not liable; also R v. G and Another [2003] UKHL 50
  24. previously in the U.K. under Metropolitan Police Commissioner v. Caldwell [1981] 1 All ER 961
  25. R v. Woolin [1998] 4 All ER 103
  26. R v. Latimer (1886) 17 QBD 359; though for an entirely different offense, e.g. breaking a window, one cannot transfer malice, see R v. Pembliton (1874) LR 2 CCR 119
  27. Perkins, Rollin M. (1982). Criminal Law, 3rd ed. The Foundation Press, Inc. pp. 15–17. ISBN   0-88277-067-5.


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