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English criminal law concerns offences, their prevention and the consequences, in England and Wales. Criminal conduct is considered to be a wrong against the whole of a community, rather than just the private individuals affected. The state, in addition to certain international organisations, has responsibility for crime prevention, for bringing the culprits to justice, and for dealing with convicted offenders. The police, the criminal courts and prisons are all publicly funded services, though the main focus of criminal law concerns the role of the courts, how they apply criminal statutes and common law, and why some forms of behaviour are considered criminal. The fundamentals of a crime are a guilty act (or actus reus) and a guilty mental state (or mens rea). The traditional view is that moral culpability requires that a defendant should have recognised or intended that they were acting wrongly, although in modern regulation a large number of offences relating to road traffic, environmental damage, financial services and corporations, create strict liability that can be proven simply by the guilty act.

Defences exist to some crimes. A person who is accused may in certain circumstances plead they are insane and did not understand what they were doing, that they were not in control of their bodies, they were intoxicated, mistaken about what they were doing, acted in self defence, acted under duress or out of necessity, or were provoked. These are issues to be raised at trial, for which there are detailed rules of evidence and procedure to be followed.

England and Wales does not have a Criminal Code, though such an enactment has been often recommended and attempted (see English Criminal Code). Many criminal offences are common law offences rather being specified in legislation.

In 1980, a Committee of JUSTICE said that, upon conducting a search, they found over 7,200 offences, and that they thought that there were probably many more. They said that "it is now impossible to ascertain the entire content of the criminal law at any given time". In 1989, the Law Commission said that a hypothetical criminal code that contained all existing criminal offences would be "impossibly bulky". In 2001, Peter Glazebrook said the criminal law was "voluminous, chaotic and contradictory". In March 2011, there were more than ten thousand offences excluding those created by by-laws.

In 1999, P J Richardson said that as the case for a moratorium on legislation in the field of criminal justice was becoming stronger and stronger, governments seemed ever more determined to bring forward more legislation

Criminal law elements
The two basic elements of a crime are the act of doing that which is criminal, and the intention to carry it out. In Latin this is called the actus reus and the mens rea. In many crimes however, there is no necessity of showing criminal intention, which is why the term "strict liability" is used.

Actus reus
Actus reus is Latin for "guilty act" and is the physical element of committing a crime. It is usually the application or threat of unlawful force, though exceptionally an omission or failure to act can result in liability. Simple examples might be A hitting B with a stick, or X pushing Y down a water well. These are guilty acts and the unlawful application or force. Alternatively, one may have a pre-existing duty to another person and by deliberately not performing it, one commits a crime. For instance, not giving food is an omission rather than an act, but as a parent one has a duty to feed one's children. Pre-existing duties can arise also through contract, a voluntary undertaking, a blood relation with whom one lives, and occasionally through one's official position. As the 19th century English judge, Lord Coleridge CJ wrote,

“It would not be correct to say that every moral obligation involves a legal duty; but every legal duty is founded on a moral obligation.”

Furthermore, one can become bound by a duty to take reasonable steps to correct a dangerous situation that one creates. In R v Miller a squatter flicked away a still lit cigarette, which landed on a mattress. He failed to take action, and after the building had burned down, he was convicted of arson. He failed to correct the dangerous situation he created, as he was duty bound to do. In many countries in Europe and North America, Good Samaritan laws also exist, which criminalize failure to help someone in distress (e.g. a drowning child). On the other hand, it was held in the U.K. that switching off the life support of someone in a persistent vegetative state is an omission to act and not criminal. Since discontinuation of power is not a voluntary act, not grossly negligent, and is in the patient's best interests, no crime takes place.

If someone's act is to have any consequence legally, it must have in some way caused a victim harm. The legal definition of "causation" is that "but for" the defendant's conduct, the victim would not have been harmed. If more than one cause for harm exists (e.g. harm comes at the hands of more than one culprit) the rule states that to be responsible, one's actions must have "more than a slight or trifling link" to the harm. Another important rule of causation is that one must "take his victim as he finds him." For instance, if P gives his friend Q a playful slap on the head, but Q suffers from a rare cranial condition and dies, then P can be guilty of manslaughter regardless of how unlucky he is to have bickered with Q. This is known as the thin skull rule.

Between the defendant's acts and the victim's harm, the chain of causation must be unbroken. It could be broken by the intervening act (novus actus interveniens) of a third party, the victim's own conduct, or another unpredictable event. A mistake in medical treatment usually will not break the chain, unless the mistakes are in themselves "so potent in causing death." For instance, if emergency medics dropped a stab victim on the way to the hospital and performed the wrong resuscitation, the attacker would not be absolved of the crime.

The interplay between causation and criminal responsibility is notoriously difficult, and many outcomes are criticized for their harshness to the unwitting defendant and sidestepping of hospitals' or the victim's own liability. In R v Dear a stab victim reopened his wounds while in the hospital and died. But despite this suicidal behavior, the attacker was still held fully responsible for murder.

R v Holland (1841) 2 Mood. & R. 351 break in causal chain
R v Instan (1893) 1 QB 450 duty of care, to not omit to help some dying of gangrene
R v Smith (Thomas Joseph) [1959] QB, negligence of medics does not stop murder
R v Hughes [2013] UKSC 56, driver who was not as fault for a crash could not be responsible for others deaths although he was prosecuted for driving without a licence or insurance.

Mens rea
Mens rea is another Latin phrase, meaning "guilty mind". It is the mental element of committing a crime and establishes the element of intent. Together with an actus reus, mens rea forms the bedrock of criminal law, although strict liability offenses have encroached on this notion. A guilty mind means intending to do that which harms someone. Intention under criminal law is separate from a person's motive. R v Mohan [1975] 2 All ER 193, intention defined as "a decision to bring about... [the actus reus] no matter whether the accused desired that consequence of his act or not." In the special case of murder, the defendant must have appreciated (i.e. consciously recognized) that either death or serious bodily harm would be the result of his actions. In R v Woolin, a man in a fit of temper threw his three-month-old son onto a wall, causing head injuries from which he died. Although death was certain and the father should have realized, he did not in the least desire that his son be killed or harmed. The English House of Lords sentenced him for manslaughter, but not murder. If a defendant has foresight of death or serious injury the jury may, but is not bound to, find the requisite mens rea.

A lower threshold of mens rea is satisfied when a defendant recognizes that some act is dangerous but decides to commit it anyway. This is recklessness. For instance if C tears a gas meter from a wall to get the money inside, and knows this will let flammable gas escape into a neighbor's house, he could be liable for poisoning. This is called "subjective recklessness," though in some jurisdictions "objective recklessness" qualifies as the requisite criminal intent, so that if someone ought to have recognized a risk and nevertheless proceeded, he may be held criminally liable. A novel aspect of the law on intention is that if one intends to harm somebody, it matters not who is actually harmed through the defendant's actions. The doctrine of transferred malice means, for instance, that if a man strikes another with his belt, but the belt bounces off and hits a nearby woman, the man is guilty of battery toward her. Malice can also be general, so that terrorists who plant bombs to kill random people are certainly guilty.

The final requirement states that both an actus reus and a mens rea coincide. For instance, in R v Church, For instance, Mr. Church had a fight with a woman which rendered her unconscious. He attempted to revive her, but gave up, believing her to be dead. He threw her, still alive, in a nearby river, where she drowned. The court held that Mr. Church was not guilty of murder (because he did not ever desire to kill her), but was guilty of manslaughter. The "chain of events", his act of throwing her into the water and his desire to hit her, coincided. In this manner, it does not matter when a guilty mind and act coincide, as long as at some point they do.

R v Steane [1947] KB 997, defective intent to help the Nazis, by doing radio broadcasts, rather than help family
Fagan v Metropolitan Police Commissioner [1969] 1 QB 439
R v Parker [1977] 1 WLR 600
R v Heard [2007] EWCA Crim 125
R v Faulkner (1877) 13 Cox CC 550 mens rea for one act does not transfer to others

Strict liability
Not all crimes have a mens rea requirement, or the threshold of culpability required may be reduced. For example, it might be sufficient to show that a defendant acted negligently, rather than intentionally or recklessly. In offences of absolute liability, other than the prohibited act, it may not be necessary to show anything at all, even if the defendant would not normally be perceived to be at fault.

England and Wales has strict liability offences, which criminalize behavior without the need to show a criminal mens rea. Most strict liability offences are created by statute, and often they are the result of ambiguous drafting. They are usually regulatory in nature, where the result of breach could have particularly harmful results. An example is drunk driving.

R v Woodrow (1846) 15 M&W 404 selling impure food, strict liability, overturning R v Dixon (1814) 3 M. & S. 11 that required mens rea
R v Stephens (1866) LR 1 QB 702 strict liability for dumping refuse into a river, despite the defendant (ostensibly) having no knowledge
Betts v Armstead (1888) LR 20 QBD 771
Fitzpatrick v Kelly (1873) LR 8 QB 337 food safety
Sweet v Parsley [1970] AC 132 mens rea needed for liability for cannibis being smoked on premises, statutory construction presumes a mens rea
R v Lambert [2001] UKHL 37, cocaine possession claiming no knowledge
Road Traffic Act 1988 s 3ZB

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