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Issues of causation | Free Tort Law Essay

“There are now compelling grounds for a clear and definitive interpretation of the issues of causation” Critically assess this statement

Causation deals with the defendant’s action, without which the result would be nonexistent. The conduct must be the ‘sine qua non’. In Dalloway (1847) the question was whether the accident would have occurred even if the driver had been driving with extreme care therefore, negligence was not the cause of death and the ‘but for’ statement came into use. Vital to the interpretation of causation is whether the accused’s act is not the only immediate cause. The case of Benge (1865) concerned a platelayer on the railway who had misconstrued the timetable which resulted in the rails being wrongly set up when the trains arrived amongst other failings in his work.

In his defence it was settled that the calamity could not have happened but for certain other contributory negligence by railway officials. This established the causation principle that so long as the defendant’s negligence substantially caused the accident, it remained irrelevant that the accident might have been prevented if other people had acted in a different way. The ‘but for’ statement is a necessary causation condition but on its own has never been sufficient to institute an overall principle of legal causation. Therefore, the interpretation of causation must include and consider certain other factors such substantiality or proximity before they can be regarded as the legal cause. A condition must be a ‘sine qua non’ but that it must also be a substantial cause. In Hennigan (1971) the defendant was charged with causing death by dangerous driving even though the other driver had pulled out of a less significant road. Parker LCJ held this aspect to make the consideration too favourable to the defendant and that the substantiality of the cause was any cause that was more than de minimis. In addition to this, if the accused is the main reason for the victim being at risk from a normal hazard of life but does not substantially increase that hazard, then he does not cause the result.

This increase of risk is demonstrated in Boswell (1973) where the victim tried to flee a gang by crossing electrified railway tracks. He was killed and the defendant was convicted of manslaughter as it was his actions that had caused the victim to try and escape and thus increased a risk. Boswell also raises the issue of reasonable foresight which is poignant to causation because in this instance it was questioned whether the defendant could have known that the victim would take deadly evasive action. The accused is held liable for all the consequences of his actions, regardless of whether they are reasonable or unreasonable so long as they are foreseeable. Roberts (1971) established that the principle question “Was it the natural result of what the alleged assailant said and did, in the sense that it was something that could reasonably have been foreseen as the consequence of what he was doing or saying.” Subsequently, the limits of reasonableness must be established which often considers whether the victim acted reasonably in order to make reasonableness more evident. Therefore, at present it is the jury which is asked to decide whether a reasonable person would have foreseen such a reaction, however, unreasonable that reaction might be. If the action of the victim is unreasonable and unproportional to the threat, then it will amount to a novus act interveniens.


Reasonable reactions have included jumping from 1st floor windows to avoid abuse and a child falling down the stair in fear of their carer. A defendant can be liable for causing death or injury fright and shock which may not be foreseeable. The victim’s fright or shock and the method of escape must be established and predictable following the principle in Roberts otherwise the defendant will not be held liable where the unusually nervous person who overreacts, makes a wholly unnecessary escape and is killed. This principle is difficult to apply especially considering the opposing principle of the defendant takes the victim as he finds him creating a discrepancy and moot point in the issue of causation. Prima facie “death from fright alone, caused by an illegal act, such as threats of violence” are sufficient to establish causation. However, in Blaue , the defendant stabbed a young girl and pierced her lung and told she needed a blood transfusion in order to save her life. Being a Jehovah’s Witness, she refused on religious grounds and duly died from loss of blood. The defendant was convicted of manslaughter and he appealed on the ground that the girl’s refusal was unreasonable and thereby was a break of the chain of causation. This was not upheld and Lawton LJ said regardless of her religious beliefs, “The question for decision is what caused her death. The answer is the stab wound.” As an alternative, the test of ‘reasonable foresight’ pertains to whether an intervening act was so unpredictable as to break the chain of causation linking the defendant to the death. In most cases, especially in the Court of Appeal it is not applied primarily because there must be a stopping point at which the contributory negligence, through malice, neglect or sheer lack of common sense, will break this chain. It is common that where there is an intervening act which immediately ’causes’ the result, the accused’s liability disappears. The most common instances of this is demonstrated if the intervening act is the sort of ordinary hazard that we all face and the accused has not increased the victim’s risk. In Jordan the accused stabbed a man in a Hull café, the victim eventually died of pneumonia and the conviction was quashed, implying that medical maltreatment could break the chain of causation. This was further tested and precedent was established in the case of Smith when the defendant faced a murder charge after a stabbing in a barracks fight. It was held that if, at the time of death, the original wound was still an operating and substantial cause, then the death can be said to be the result of the wound. It was decided that if the original wound was only the reason why the negligence was performed then it can be said death has not been caused.

In summation it is worth heading the advice of Lord Bridge in the case of Tse Hung-lit: “Questions of causation arise in many different legal contexts and no single theory of causation will provide a ready-made answer… the approach must necessarily be pragmatic…” With regards to intervening acts in particular it is very obvious that the issues surrounding causation need to be met with definitive and clear grounds of interpretation.


  • ALLEN, M. (2003) Textbook on Criminal Law 7th Edition Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • DINE, J. AND GOBERT, J. (2003) Cases and Materials on Criminal Law 4th Edition Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • JEFFERSON, M. (2005) Criminal Law 7th Edition Harlow: Pearson Longman.

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