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Automatism is a plea by a defendant in a criminal case that their actions were not under the control of their conscious mind. A successful plea of automatism negates the conduct element of the actus reus of the alleged offence.

Automatism as a defence

Where the defendant exercised some control

If a defendant is to be held criminally liable, they need to demonstrate voluntary behaviour. Involuntary behaviour in legal terms can occur in two ways: by loss of physical control, or impaired consciousness. [1]

Sane automatism

Sane automatism occurs when automatism is caused by an external factor, for example hypoglycaemia[2], concussion, alcohol or drugs.

The burden of proof for sane automatism rests on the prosecution, to prove automatism beyond reasonable doubt. The defendant is only required to produce medical evidence to support this plea.

Insane automatism

Insane Automatism is when it is shown that that at the time of the defence, the defendant was suffering from a defect of reason. The M'Nagten rules set out the defence of insanity.

Where a defendant is found to have been suffering from insanity in UK law, this is considered to be the special verdict and is a qualified acquittal. The judge may impose hospitalisation, a guardianship order, a supervision order or an absolute discharge. The only exception is if the offence was murder, which would result in an indefinite stay in a psychiatric hospital. [3] [4]

Precedents in UK law

Woolmington v DPP [1935]

Established that, subject to limited exceptions, the burden was on the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Emphasis was placed on the requirement in criminal law that a voluntary, willed act on the part of the defendant was essential for criminal liability.

Bratty v Attorney General for Northern Ireland [1961]

“No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily’. Lord Denning clarified an involuntary act as one “done by the muscles without any control by the mind such as a spasm, a reflex action or a convulsion; or an act done by a person who is not conscious of what he is doing such as an act done whilst suffering from concussion or whilst sleepwalking.” [5]

Current developments in UK law

The Draft Criminal Code[6] includes within the definition of automatism an movement which:

Is a reflex, spasm or convulsion; or occurs while he is in a condition ... depriving him of effective control of the act.

While less harsh than the existing equirement of total deprivation of control, this Code has not yet become law.


Case Law:

Woolmington v DPP [1935]

Bratty v Attorney General for Northern Ireland [1961]

Broome v Perkins [1987] (Div. Ct.)

Attorney General’s Reference (No 2. of 1992) [1993] CA

  1. Simester AP, Sullivan GR, (Oxford, 2007) Criminal Law: Theory and Doctrine 3rd Edition, p 103-105
  2. Quick [1973]
  3. Criminal Procedure (Insanity and Unfitness to Plead) Act 1991
  4. Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act 1964
  5. David Ormerod, (Oxford, 2005) Smith and Hogan’s Criminal Law, p 48
  6. Draft Criminal Code