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Intention and Motive in Criminal Law

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Date added: 17-06-26


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Critically assess the ways in which the judges have differentiated between the concepts of intention and motive in the criminal law In lay terms “intention” and “motive” are often employed interchangeably and without apparent distinction. This cannot be said to be so in the criminal law. Smith[1], commenting upon intention, states: “It might be expected that the meaning of such a fundamental term would have been settled long ago but this is not so. The cases are inconsistent, judicial opinion has recently changed and there is still some measure of uncertainty.” It is perhaps significant that none of the leading criminal law text books allow either intention or motive an indexed category of their own, referring the reader instead to the fundamental concept of mens rea. However, it should be noted that mens rea may not be equated with intention still less with motive. Mens rea is itself incapable of a single definition. Every crime has its own mens rea which must be ascertained from the words of the relevant statute or the appropriate case law. The term refers to that element of a criminal offence which relates to the mental state of the defendant. Different crimes require different mental states ranging from intention and knowledge to recklessness and negligence. In R v Maloney[2], the House of Lords made it clear that intention should in the vast majority of cases be afforded its ordinary meaning. Lord Bridge stated (at p.926): “…when directing a jury on the mental element necessary in a crime of specific intent, the judge should avoid any elaboration or paraphrase of what is meant by intent, and leave it to the jury’s good sense to decide whether the accused acted with the necessary intent…” This has not, however, prevented the judiciary from indulging in much soul-searching over the meaning of the term. The classic case relating to the requisite intention to commit the crime of murder was for a long time Hyam v DPP[3] in which the majority of the House of Lords held that foresight of high probability of serious bodily harm was a sufficient mens rea for murder even though such a state of mind did not even amount to an intention to cause grievous bodily harm. Thus it may be observed that so far as the requisite intention to commit murder is concerned, the mens rea - in this case “malice aforethought” - can be possessed by a defendant who does not “intend” deliberately to kill in any accepted sense of the term. Notwithstanding the simplicity of the approach in Maloney (supra), further direction has been found to be necessary in cases in which the result was not the defendant’s actual purposes even though the outcome was a highly probable consequence of his actions. Herring[4] cites the “oft-quoted example” of the person who plants a bomb on an aeroplane hoping to destroy items which he has insured. He will not necessarily intend the death of the pilot even though this is an almost inevitable consequence of his actions. In R v Nedrick[5], Lord Lane CJ proposed that the jury be directed that “they are not entitled to infer the necessary intention, unless they feel sure that death or serious bodily harm was a virtual certainty (barring some unforeseen intervention) as a result of the defendant’s actions and that the defendant appreciated that such was the case”. This was the subject of challenge in the leading case of R v Woollin[6] in which the certified question was whether in murder a direction such as that proposed by Lord Lane CJ was necessary and, if so, whether such a direction was necessary in all cases or whether it was only necessary in cases where the sole evidence of intention was to be found in the actions of the defendant and their consequences for the victim. That case involved a defendant who killed his infant son by throwing him onto a hard surface in a fit of temper. The judge at first instance directed the jury that if they concluded that the appellant had appreciated that there was a substantial risk that the child would suffer serious harm they were entitled to convict him of murder. An appeal to the Court of Appeal was unsuccessful but the House of Lords quashed convictions of both murder and manslaughter on the basis that where it was not the purpose of the defendant to cause death or serious harm, he should not be found to have the requisite mens rea unless the outcome was a virtually certain consequence of his actions and he appreciated that to be so. This concentration upon purpose may make it appear that intention should be regarded as very similar in meaning to motive. However, it remains the case that the two concepts should be very clearly distinguished. It was stated in Maloney (supra at p.926) that “intention is something quite different from motive or desire”. This is not to say, however, that a consideration of motive is entirely unhelpful. Smith (Op. Cit., p.96 supplies the example of a defendant who puts poison in his uncle’s tea with the intention of killing him in order to inherit his money. That author suggests that the motive (to inherit the money) should be entirely distinguished from the actus reus and the mens rea and that motive is therefore “by definition” irrelevant to criminal responsibility”. It is submitted, however, that Herring (Op. Cit., p.143) supplies a pragmatic and preferable analysis. He suggests that where a person who has put rat poison into a persons food who happens to expect a legacy upon that person’s death, the jury is far less likely to believe that the administration of the poison was an absent-minded mistake rather than an intended act. Thus, while the courts have ostensibly tended to eschew considerations of motive in assessing the existence of intent, it is submitted that an examination of the rationale behind a person’s actions can often provide a useful tool in assessing their purpose and thus their true state of mind allowing an appropriate conclusion to be drawn as to the presence or otherwise of the requisite mens rea. Bibliography Herring, J., Criminal Law, Text, Cases and Materials, (2004) Smith, J., Smith & Hogan, Criminal Law (10th Ed., 2003) Westlaw 1

Footnotes

[1] Smith, J., Smith & Hogan, Criminal Law (10th Ed., 2003), p.70 [2] [1985] AC 905 [3] [1975] AC 55 [4] Criminal Law, Text, Cases and Materials, (2004), p.144 [5] [1986] 1 WLR 1025 [6] [1999] AC 82
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