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This element of the actus reus of murder can be further broken down into two distinct matters for consideration:

  1. Causation
  2. Death

The first section will deal with the issues around causation: the prosecution must prove that the defendant’s actions contributed to the victim’s death in a way which allows us to hold them liable for that death.

The following cases deal with the problem of deciding when someone is dead for legal purposes. This has become a particularly difficult question for the courts since the invention of life-sustaining medical intervention which has made it possible for doctors to mimic the respiratory functions of a living human being in someone who is brain dead.

Cases

Causation

The cases for causation can be found in the ‘doctrines of criminal law’ section. The cases are all relevant to homicide.

Doctrines of Criminal Law – causation

Many of the cases actually involve a charge of murder or manslaughter. These are:

R v Paggett [1983]
In R v Paggett, the defendant used the victim as a human shield. The defendant was charged and convicted of murder after the victim was shot and killed by a police officer.

R v Hart [1986]
In R v Hart, the defendant was convicted of murder after he left the victim unconscious below the high-water mark of a beach, where she drowned.

R v Michael [1840]
The defendant was convicted of murdering her illegitimate child. The Court held the chain of causation was not broken where the bottle of poison given by the defendant was administered to her child by another child, rather than the foster parent.

Death

Historically, it the Court’s stated that a person was legally dead at the time when there was a completely irreversible cessation of the victim’s breathing and heartbeat. However, now that medical professionals are able to keep a victim’s heart beating through artificial means, new standards are required to decide when a person is legally ‘dead’.

The cases in this section all deal with the test which the courts have articulated as to the types of medical conditions which are classified as death for legal purposes.

Airedale NHS Trust v Bland [1993]
The three Law Lords hearing the case assumed that brain stem death was sufficient to show that death had occurred.

Re A (a minor) [1959]
This is a civil case in which the first instance court ruled that brain stem death is equivalent to death for legal purposes. This confirmed the assumption made by the judges in Airedale NHS Trust v Bland.

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