Notes: automatismshortnotes.doc automatismshortnotes.doc



Automatism requires the defendant to show that his act was:


  1. Involuntary – D has a total loss of self control that means he is not responsible for his conduct that causes the crime (a lack of AR)
  2. Due to an external factor.
  3. The total loss of self control was not self induced.


An involuntary act


The defendant’s act must be involuntary in that that his mind is not controlling his limbs in a purposeful manner.


Bratty (1963): Where the defendant claimed that ‘a blackness came over him’, as a result of epilepsy. In that case Lord Denning said:


“No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily and an involuntary act means an act which is 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 done whilst sleepwalking.”


This means there must be a total lack of self control in order to be classed as an involuntary action.


Attorney-General’s Reference (No. 2 of 1992) 1993, the defendant killed two people whose car was on the hard shoulder of the motorway. He claimed he was driving his lorry ‘without awareness’, caused by driving for a long time on the motorway and was in a trance-like state. Held, that he was still partly in control so automatism did not apply. There must be a total loss of control.


The external factor (cause)


This requirement is that the automatism has been caused by an external factor such as a blow on the head rather than an internal factor such as a disease. It follows from this that the automatism must not be self-induced – this is the case with self-administered drink or drugs.


Automatism is self-induced when it results from the defendant’s actions or failing to take action. Where the automatism is self induced the defence will not be allowed. Examples of external factors are:


1.Blow to Head

2.Attack by swarm of bees                                Hill v Baxter

3.Sneezing                                                         R v Whooley 1997


5.Effect of a drug                                               R v Hardie

6.Exceptional stress or Post traumatic stress    R v T


R v T (1990): Miss T pleaded automatism to a charge of robbery. She had been raped 3 days earlier. There was evidence of a disassociative state resulting from something qualitatively different to the ordinary stresses of life, for example a rape attack, which would indicate an external cause. In any event the jury decided to convict and she was not successful with the defence. Held this was an external cause and the D could argue Automatism.


The difference between insanity and automatism


Quick (1973), the defendant was a nurse alone on duty in a ward at a hospital where a paraplegic spastic patient, unable to walk, was sitting watching television. Half an hour later, the patient had sustained two black eyes, a fractured nose, a split lip which required three stitches, and bruising of his arm and shoulders. There was undisputed medical evidence that these injuries could not have been self-inflicted. Held D was suffering from automatism, which is a mental abnormality caused by an external factor.  He was suffering hypoglycaemia (low sugar in the blood) by taking insulin prescribed by his doctor but failing to eat after.


Hennessey (1989), the defendant was charged with taking a motor car without authority and driving while disqualified. He claimed that he was suffering from hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar level caused by diabetes) at the time because he had not taken any insulin to stabilise himself, nor eaten properly for days, and as a result was acting unconsciously. Held that the defence of automatism was not available to him as the diabetes was an internal factor. The only possible defence for a jury to consider was insanity.


Self induced automatism


Where the D has brought about the state of automatism or is aware this may happen the courts will not allow the defence, even if this is due to an external cause. Clearly where D takes drink or drugs voluntarily this would be the case though this will be explained in more detail under the defence of intoxication.


Bailey (1983) D was a diabetic who had failed to eat enough (hypoglycaemic) after taking his insulin to control the diabetes. He became aggressive and hit someone over the head with an iron bar. Held, his defence of automatism failed as he was reckless in getting into this hypoglycaemic state – it was self-induced.


Hardie (1984): D took Valium to calm himself down, he then set fire to a wardrobe inside a flat. The trial judge directed the jury to ignore the effects of the tablets and he was convicted of arson. CA quashed the conviction. Held, as the D had taken Valium in order to calm down, which is the normal effect of Valium, the D had not been reckless and the defence of automatism should have been left to the jury. Where prescription drugs are taken sensibly and D has an unexpected reaction the defence of automatism can be raised as this is an external cause of the loss of control.


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