Automatism as a Criminal Defence

What is automatism?

Generally, at common law, a voluntary act is required to establish the actus reus of a crime.  The defendant should also be conscious of their acts so that mens rea can be established.  A defendant may, however, plead automatism, which if successful will result in an acquittal.  Automatism as a defence seeks to show that a crime was the result of an involuntary act caused by an external factor.

Automatism distinguished from insanity

If automatism is the result of a disease of the mind then this is properly insanity and a trial judge is entitled to withdraw the defence of automatism from the jury following Bratty v Attorney-General for Northern Ireland [1963].  On the other hand, a diabetic who overdoses on insulin causing them to suffer hypoglycaemia will not be suffering a disease of the mind and may be able to plead automatism.  (Compare this to R v Hennessy [1989], where a diabetic suffering from hyperglycaemia was judged to have a disease of the mind and consequently was criminally insane.  For a better understanding, hypoglycaemia is a state induced by a lower than normal level of blood glucose.  Conversely, hyperglycaemia is when there is an excess of glucose in the blood plasma.)   The jury will have to decide whether the defence is made out and that the defendant was acting involuntarily due to an external factor (see R v Quick [1973]).

Self-induced automatism

Drunkenness and drugs

Automatism induced by alcohol or drugs is, as a matter of public policy, incapable of being a legal defence.  This is generally because there is a high number of crimes committed under the influence of alcohol, and increasingly nowadays drugs, which would otherwise go unpunished.  In R v Lipman [1969] the defendant was convicted of the manslaughter of a girl who he had killed whilst under the influence of LSD.  In confirming the conviction, the Court of Appeal held that mental states induced by drink or drugs are no defence to a charge of manslaughter, which, in any event, is an offence that does not require specific intent. 

Although automatism induced voluntarily through alcohol or drugs may indeed cause the defendant to act involuntarily or be unaware of what he was doing, it cannot normally be a complete defence.  However, there may be a partial defence in such circumstances if the accused is charged with an offence that requires a specific intent which the alcohol or drugs negated.  Often, however, serious charges which require specific intent are often coupled with lesser charges which do not.  So, a murder charge may be reduced to manslaughter if it can be shown that, due to a voluntary intake of alcohol or drugs, the defendant did not have the specific intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm which is required for murder.  As long as the defendant had the basic intent to commit an unlawful act then a guilty verdict on a charge of manslaughter should be reached.  In DPP v Majewski [1976] the House of Lords ruled that unless the offence charged was one of specific intent an alcohol or drugs defence could not apply.

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  • Drunkenness or drugs not self-induced