Crime XXXXVII – Constructive Manslaughter VI – The Unlawful Act V

In R v Mitchell (1983) the accused jumped a queue at a post office and was confronted by an elderly man. The accused hit the elderly man and he fell into the crowd and collided with an elderly lady. As a result, the elderly lady fell down and broke her leg. She subsequently died from the injuries that she’d sustained. The accused was charged and convicted for constructive manslaughter or unlawful manslaughter.

The defense appealed but the conviction was upheld. It was sufficient that an unlawful act had been committed or perpetrated. The act need not be directed at the victim.

In R v Goodfellow (1986) the accused who’d been repeatedly harassed by a couple of men set fire to his own home and his wife, son and his son’s girlfriend, who were in the house at the time, died in the fire. The accused was tried and convicted for unlawful act manslaughter. The accused appealed.

The conviction was upheld. Reaffirming the decision in R v Mitchell (1983) and decisions in similar cases prior to that, it was held that it was sufficient that an unlawful act had been committed and despite the fact that act was not directed at the victim(s), the accused was nonetheless guilty.

In Attorney-General’s Reference (No.3 of 1994) the accused stabbed his girlfriend three times in various parts of her body including her stomach. She was 22 – 24 weeks pregnant at the time and slightly over a fortnight later, she delivered and though the baby was born premature it lived for 121 days before it died from the injuries sustained from the stabbing. The accused was charged on two counts: – 1) for causing grievous bodily harm (GBH) to his girlfriend for which he was convicted and 2) for causing the death of the child i.e. murder.

On the second count, the question before the court was whether it is possible to cause GBH to a child that was in the mother’s womb and the question arose simply because the child was not yet born and did not have an identity or a personality of its own. The trial judge held that it was not possible to cause GBH to a child that was in the mother’s womb. The Attorney General referred the matter to the Court of Appeal on a point of law and the Court of Appeal held that the death of the baby was murder.

The accused appealed to the House of Lords who substituted the conviction for murder with that of manslaughter and clarified the law. It is possible to cause GBH to a child while it is in the mother’s womb if the child is then born and subsequently dies as a result of the injuries sustained. The death of the child however could not be classed as murder because at the time the injuries were inflicted the child was not yet born and had not acquired an identity or a personality of its own.

 Copyright © 2018 by Dyarne Ward

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