Automatism, Insanity And Diminished Responsibility Essay

1823 words - 7 pages

A defence in criminal law arises when conditions exist to negate specific elements of the crime: the actus reus when actions are involuntary, the mens rea when the defendant is unaware of the significance of their conduct, or both. These defences will mitigate or eliminate liability from a criminal offence. Insanity, automatism and diminished responsibility are examples of said defences. They each share characteristics but can be distinguished in their scope and application.

Insanity, automatism and diminished responsibility all play a significant role in cases where the defendant’s mind is abnormal while committing a crime. The definition of abnormal will be reviewed in relationship to each defence. In order to identify how these three defences compare and contrast, it is first important to understand their definition and application. The appropriate defence will be used once the facts of the cases have been distinguished and they meet the legal tests. The legal test of insanity is set out in M’Naghten’s Case: “to establish a defence…of insanity it must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” To be specific, the defect of reason arises when the defendant is incapable of exercising normal reasoning. The defect of reason requires instability in reasoning rather than a failure to exercise it at a time when exercise of reason is possible. In the case of R v Clarke, the defendant was clinically depressed and in a moment of absent-mindedness, stole items from a supermarket. The Court of Appeal held that M’Naghten Rules do not apply because although the defendant failed to exercise powers of reason, she was not incapable of exercising reasoning and therefore, did not fall under the scope of insanity. When there is a defect of cognitive awareness, it may operate to negate the actus reus and mens rea of the crime. Furthermore, the nature of the disease of mind is irrelevant provided that the mental faculties of reason, memory and understanding are impaired at the time of the offence. In a case where the defendant is aware of the nature and quality of his offence, insanity may still be a valid defence if he does not know his action was wrong. In R v Windle, the defendant demonstrated that his conduct was contrary to law, therefore illustrating his knowledge that his act was wrong. Automatism shares commonalities and differences with insanity in relation to its definition and when it will succeed as a defence.
Automatism, as defined by Lord Denning in Bratty v A-G for Northern Ireland, is an involuntary act which means “an act which is done by the muscles without any control by the mind such as spasm, a reflex or a convulsion; or an act done by a person who is not conscious of what he is...

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