Causation in Criminal Matters (Qld)
In criminal law, causation is the relationship between the accused’s conduct and the end result. There are a lot of criminal offences for which causation is not relevant because the conduct amounts to a criminal offence without any requirement that it brought about a particular result. However, for some offences, such as homicide offences and offences involving causing injury, the prosecution will need to prove causation for the accused to be found guilty. This article deals with causation in criminal matters in Queensland.
When Is Causation Relevant?
Causation must be established when an accused is being tried for an offence that involves their conduct leading to a particular result. Some of the Queensland criminal offences where causation must be proven are set out below.
Assault occasioning bodily harm
An assault occasioning bodily harm under section 339 of the Criminal Code 1899 requires a person to have assaulted another person, doing them bodily harm.
Murder and manslaughter
A person who kills another person intentionally or with reckless indifference to human life is guilty of murder under section 302.
A person who unlawfully kills under circumstances that do not amount to murder is guilty of manslaughter under section 303.
A murder or manslaughter charge requires causation to be proven as it must be established that the accused’s act or omission caused the victim’s death.
Unlawful striking causing death
Unlawful striking causing death, also known as one-punch manslaughter, is an offence under section 314. It occurs when a person strikes another person in the head or neck and causes the death of the other person. This offence requires causation to be established. The victim’s death must be the result of the single strike.
Doing grievous bodily harm
Doing grievous bodily harm (GBH) to another person is an offence under section 320. Although this offence does not require the accused to have intended to inflict GBH, it does require causation to be established.
A person who unlawfully wounded another commits an offence under section 323. This offence requires that the wounding be proven to have been caused by the accused’s conduct.
In order for a person to be criminally responsible for any of the above offences, it must be shown that their actions contributed materially to the result.
Case Law On Causation
Case law has established the following principles concerning causation in criminal matters.
- An accused can be liable for causing a result even where their conduct was not the direct or immediate cause of the result;
- The accused’s conduct does not have to be the only cause of the result;
- An accused can cause a result by either an act or omission.
It can be difficult to prove causation where there is a circumstance that could be seen as an intervening act. An intervening act is another act that intervenes in the chain of causation between the act or omission of the accused and the state of affairs that resulted from it.
An example of an intervening act is where a person stabs another person. A third person subsequently assaults the same victim, in a separate incident, and the victim subsequently dies. The accused person will be responsible for the death if it can be proven that the stabbing was a substantial cause of their death.
Acts By The Victim
Another complicating factor can arise if the victim injures themselves while trying to flee from the accused. In this situation, the accused’s act will still be found to be the cause of the result provided the victim’s actions were the ‘natural consequence’ of the conduct of the accused. However, an overreaction to the situation by the victim can be found to break the chain of causation, meaning that the accused is not responsible for the result.
In some criminal matters, the accused may have committed multiple acts against the victim. In these cases, it is not usually necessary to establish which of the individual acts brought about the result.
However, in some cases, it may be necessary to establish which particular act caused the result. This may be because one act was committed voluntarily and another act was committed involuntarily. Alternately, the accused may have had different mental states when the different acts occurred (for example, they may have been reckless during one act and done the other act intentionally).
Sometimes the accused’s act may have been a substantial cause of a result, but another person’s act (an intervening act) may also have contributed to the result. In this situation, the accused may be found responsible for the result if their act was a substantial cause of the result.
One example of this is as follows. An accused commits a serious assault on a victim. The victim is taken to hospital but is involved in a car accident on the way and sustains further injuries, before dying. If the assault is found to have been a substantial cause of the death, the accused will be found responsible, notwithstanding the injuries were worsened by the car accident.
Remoteness And Causation
In a case where it cannot be proved that the accused’s act was a substantial cause of the resulting state of affairs, the causal relationship between the act and the result may be found to be ‘too remote’ for causation to be made out.
A result may be too remote from an act because there were intervening acts or additional factors that were more directly connected to the result than the accused’s conduct. In this situation, the accused must be found not guilty.
How Is Causation Assessed?
If a person is facing a charge that involves causing a particular result, they may wish to contest the charge on the basis of lack of causation. This defence requires the prosecution to show that causation is made out.
The first step in assessing whether causation is made out is to ask whether there is a connection between the accused’s conduct and the result that is said to have been caused by it. If there is a connection, move on to the second step.
The second step is to consider whether the connection is sufficiently strong to attribute causation to the accused’s act. If the result would not have come about ‘but for’ the accused’s act or omission, then a causal connection is established. If the result would have come about regardless of the accused’s actions, there is no causal connection.
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