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Why R v Woollin is important

In R v Woollin, the House of Lords clarified the meaning of indirect or oblique intention in cases of murder. The House of Lords also confirmed the correct direction which should be given to the jury in these circumstances.

In order to infer that the defendant possessed the requisite intention for murder, the jury must be sure that death or serious bodily harm was a virtual certainty of the defendant’s actions. Furthermore, the jury must find that the defendant appreciated that this was the case.

Facts

Woollin ‘lost his cool’ and threw his 3-month old son who would not stop crying onto the ground. The baby suffered a fractured skill, from which he then died.

Conviction at Issue

The defendant was charged with murder.

The trial judge directed the jury that they may convict the accused of murder based on an oblique intention to cause the child’s death if he appreciated or realised that his actions put the child at a substantial risk of injury. The jury concluded that exposing a victim to a substantial risk of harm was sufficient to form the intention required for murder.

The defendant appealed the direction of the judge, arguing that it was a misdirection of the intention required to prove murder.

Issues facing the Court

  1. Whether the trial judge erred in directing the jury that to find an intention for murder that the defendant must have appreciated that his son faced a ‘substantial risk’ of injury when he threw him against a hard-surface.
  2. In murder, where there is no direct evidence that the purpose of a defendant was to kill or to inflict serious injury on the victim, is it necessary to direct the jury that they may only infer an intent to do serious injury, if they are satisfied (a) that serious bodily harm was a virtually certain consequence of the defendant’s voluntary act and (b) that the defendant appreciated that fact?
  3. If the trial judge had in fact erred, whether the defendant’s conviction for murder was unsafe.

Outcome

The defendant’s conviction for murder was found to be unsafe. The House held that the judge’s direction to the jury expanded the mens rea of murder too far. Therefore, the defendant’s murder conviction was substituted for a manslaughter conviction.

The Court concluded that the test of intention for murder is a subjective test, a summary of which can be found here.

The House of Lords found that the judge had erred in using the phrase ‘substantial risk,’ rather than ‘virtual certainty.’ This was because the phrase ‘substantial risk’ blurred the distinction between intention and recklessness on the part of the defendant.

The House largely agreed with the formula laid down in R v Nedrick, with some minor modifications. The correct direction to be provided to the jury on oblique or indirect intention following Woollin is:

Where the charge is murder and in the rare cases where the simple direction is not enough, the jury should be directed that they are not entitled to find 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.

Different interpretations of R v Woollin

There are two readings of the Woollin direction.

The first is: if the prosecution prove that the defendant foresaw that it was virtually certain that he would cause death or grievous bodily harm to the victim, this itself constitutes the requisite intention to cause death or grievous bodily harmed required to form the mens rea of murder.

The second is: proof that the defendant foresaw that it was virtually certain that he would cause death or grievous bodily harm is merely evidence from which the jury can infer that the defendant intended to cause death or grievous bodily harm to the victim. It does not alone constitute indirect intention for murder.

One of these interpretations was explored in R v Matthews and Alleyne.

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