Can I use being drunk as a defence to a criminal act?

Alcohol and the Law

Currently in the UK the problems of drinking and binge drinking are huge issues which involve a huge amount of debate. One statistic which is extremely apparent is that a large amount of criminal offences occur when an individual has been drinking. For example research has shown that 40% of offenders who have been involved in violent incidents have been drinking prior to the offence taking place.

Can I use alcohol as a defence?

Under the current law seen in England and Wales intoxication can be taken into consideration in relation to certain criminal offences but not for others.

The distinction lies in the differentiation of the offences. For example if an offence is said to require a specific intent to commit the offence such as murder then intoxication can be taken into consideration. If on the other hand the offence is said to be one of basic intent then the fact that the defendant was said to have been intoxicated is an irrelevant consideration.

How does this work in practice?

Specific Intent

  • If we look at the criminal offence of murder where the defendant has to have a specific intent to kill another individual the fact that he is intoxicated will be taken into consideration to establish whether or not the defendant possessed the required mental state to commit the crime.

  • The fact that the intoxication of the defendant will be a relevant consideration does not mean that the defence of intoxication will be able to be used every time in a case concerning specific intent. Each case will be examined on its own merits in order to establish whether the defendant possessed the required mental state.

  • This will also not be a complete defence – if it is successfully pleaded in the case of a murder it is likely that the defendant would be charged with manslaughter.

Basic Intent

  • In cases concerning basic intent it is irrelevant whether the defendant had been drinking.
  • Accordingly recklessness is not defined as specific intent. This means that in order for the offence to be established it must be proven that the defendant would have foreseen the application of unlawful force if he or she had been sober. If this would have been the case then the defendant would be liable and it is irrelevant that they did not foresee this due to being intoxicated.

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For more information on:

  • What is the position in relation to other jurisdictions?
  • Have there been any suggestions in relation to amendments to the law?
  • Alcohol and Sexual Offences
  • Issue if the victim had been drinking
  • Issue if the accused had been drinking