Causation in Criminal Matters (Vic)
In criminal law, causation is the relationship between the accused’s conduct and the end result. For many criminal offences, causation is not relevant because the accused’s conduct amounts to an offence without any requirement that it brought about a particular result. However, for some offences, including murder, manslaughter and offences involving causing injury, causation will need to be proved in order for the accused to be found guilty. This article deals with the issue of causation in criminal matters.
When is causation relevant?
Causation must be established when a person is being tried for an offence that involves their actions leading to a particular result. Causation must be proven to find a person guilty of a homicide offence, which involves being alleged to have caused the death of a victim. It must also be proven for the offences contained in sections 15 to 18 and 24 of the Crimes Act 1958, which involve intentionally or recklessly causing injury or serious injury to the victim.
All of these offences are based on the accused doing an act that brought about a result (whether intentionally or recklessly). In order for a person to be criminally responsible, it must be shown that their actions contributed materially to that result.
Case law on causation
Case law has established the following principles with regard to 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 that result;
- The accused does not have to be the sole cause of the result;
- An accused can cause a result by an act or omission.
It can be difficult to prove causation in a case where there is a circumstance that could be viewed as an intervening act. An intervening act is another act that intervenes in the chain of causation between the accused’s act and the situation that results from it.
An example of an intervening act is where an accused stabs a victim. Another person subsequently assaults the same victim, in a separate incident, and the victim subsequently dies. The accused will be responsible for the victim’s death if it can be proven that the stabbing was a substantial cause of the victim’s death.
Acts by the victim
Another complicating factor can be where the victim injured themselves in the process of trying to flee from the accused. In this situation, the accused’s act will still be found to be the cause of the result if the victim’s actions were the ‘natural consequence’ of the accused’s conduct. However, an overreaction to the accused’s conduct can be found to break the chain of causation.
In some criminal matters, there will be multiple acts by the same accused against the victim. In most of these cases, it is not necessary to establish which act brought about the result.
However, in some cases, it may be necessary to establish which act caused the result. This may be because the accused committed one act voluntarily and another act involuntarily. Alternately, the accused may have had different mental states when they committed different acts (for example, they may have committed one act recklessly and another act intentionally).
In some cases, 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 provided their act was a substantial cause of the result.
One example of this would be where an accused commits a serious assault on a victim. The victim is involved in a car accident on the way to hospital and sustains further injuries, and subsequently dies. If the assault is found to have been a substantial cause of the victim’s death, the accused will be found responsible, notwithstanding the victim’s injuries were worsened by the car accident.
Remoteness and causation
In a case where it cannot be established that the accused’s act was a substantial cause of the result, the causal relationship between the act and the result may be found to be ‘too remote’ to make out causation.
A result may be too remote from an accused’s act because there were intervening acts, acts by the victim or additional factors that were more directly connected to the result than the accused’s act or omission. In this situation, the accused must be found not guilty.
How is causation assessed?
If a person has been charged with an offence that involves causing a particular result, they may wish to contest the charge on the basis of lack of causation. If a person relies on this defence, the court will have to assess whether causation is made out.
The first step in assessing whether causation can be established is to ask whether there is a connection between the act or omission and the result that are said to constitute the offence. If there is a connection, move on to the second step.
The second step is to consider whether the connection is strong enough to attribute causation to the accused’s act or omission. If the result would not have come about ‘but for’ the act or omission of the accused, then a causal connection is established. If the result would have come about regardless of what the accused did or did not do, there is no causal connection.
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