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Updated: May 17, 2023


Introduction to the Criminal Law

Fundamental principles of criminal liability prohbits the kinds of conduct that society considers unacceptable. The law comprises offenses and crimes that protect the rights of individuals, society, and certain rights related to property. The criminal law is society's perception of the difference between good and evil. This is why crimes are considered a "public wrong," i.e. it is necessary to safeguard the moral foundations of our society.

Naturally, it is not the case that every offence is punished. For instance, it's not the function of the justice system of criminal courts to enforce morality upon the population. Morality, however, can guide the legislature in deciding if the behaviour of individuals "inflicts substantial harm" and, consequently, should be punishable by law. People's opinions regarding what is right or moral may not always be in line with what is or isn't criminal. For instance, some may consider that adultery is wrong or moral, but being in a relationship isn't considered a crime.

Since the beginning, society has controlled and, if needed, punished the conduct of its citizens. So, in the form of common law as well as statute law, the law has a long history and has continued to evolve over the course of many years, resulting in a range of crimes and offences that define the rules that provide individuals with the information needed to decide if they commit a public offense.

So much of the law you will be studying is based upon principles and laws that are centuries older, with some aspects that are distinctly archaic in nature and form. It is, for example, illegal to join your spouse in committing a crime. The reason for this is that wives are the property of husbands. In this particular area of law and the criminal law the husband and wife are considered one entity. Because it's impossible to agree with your husband, it's impossible to create conspiracy theories!

Therefore, we have the rules in place. And when a defendant violates the rules, that will lead to their being detained. However, it's essential to consider more than the individual's actions when deciding if the offence was committed. This behaviour may be considered illegal at times. However, there is a justification or reason, i.e., some defence is in place. For instance, a defendant who attacks someone and does it for self-defence or steals something but does it under pressure.

Sometimes, a behaviour can be considered unacceptable only in certain situations or when individuals go over certain boundaries. For instance, the laws on drinking alcohol don't prohibit anyone over the age of 18 or over from purchasing beer. However, they prohibit it in the case of a person who is less than 18. In the same way, drinking alcohol is usually considered acceptable. However, it could be considered an offence if done in a public area.

Criminal laws are extensive and affect almost everything we do in our daily lives. For example, failure to purchase a television licence or follow the rules regarding health and safety constitutes a violation of criminal law, as is the case of importing class A drugs or the theft of money. The only difference is the potential punishment each defendant will face if found guilty.

There are thousands of infractions within our statute book, and tackling the entire spectrum would fall beyond the scope of any legal system. Instead, you'll focus on a few of the most critical criminal offenses. The information and understanding you get from these will give you the skills you need to deal with any other crime you might see in your daily work.

This is a fascinating subject of law. Criminal laws are constantly changing. The courts continue to direct how they interpret laws in the present by using the law of the case. The government also regularly changes the law by conducting reviews. They are conducted more informally and may result in amending, removing, or even establishing new crimes. Since it was last updated, there's been a massive revision of the law regarding sexual crimes. In addition, many offences related to deceit have been wholly replaced by new fraud offences.

We know that murder is currently under review, yet no legislation has been put in place. The changes in our society's attitudes could lead to a similar modification in the laws. For example, a rape committed by a spouse was recognised as a crime for the first time. Homosexuality was officially decriminalised in the year 1967. The definition of drugs has changed in the past few years. Modern technology in our modern age brings new challenges and, of course, new laws. If there are any big or important changes to your course, you will be told about them.

A key aspect of criminal law is that once it is proven that a crime was committed, there is a criminal justice system in place. It will generally oblige the accused to appear in an in-court hearing (following detection, arrest, and a charge). An exhaustive examination of the laws will be conducted if the accused is prosecuted, and the system will punish the offender with a proper sentence. These procedures are not part of the course, but they will be addressed during the vocational phase of your studies. At this point in your studies, you will learn about the actual rules of criminal law and how to analyse those rules.

General rules for criminal justice

The need to keep society safe from lousy behaviour must be balanced by the need not to violate the defendant's fundamental rights. If there is the possibility of an offense against the law, the defendant will be presumed innocent until the case is proven to be guilty. The defendant will receive an impartial trial, but his burden to establish assertions against him lies with the prosecutor. As was previously explained, the fundamentals of our legal system for criminal justice will be at the heart of the professional courses you'll be able to progress into. However, understanding these fundamental requirements is critical to understanding how criminal law and substantive law have evolved.

The burden of proof and the level of proof

"The prosecution must demonstrate every aspect of the criminal's actions beyond reasonable doubt." Woolmington v. DPP (1935). AC 462. This holds accurate even with regards to the majority of defences like self-defence. The only obligation for the defendant to meet is to assert an argument that the defence of self-defence may be applicable. Still, it's the prosecution's responsibility to prove the defense does not exist after that. In the rare instances in which the defendant is required to carry their burden of proof, like the defence that he is not responsible in the case of murder, the burden of proof is based on the weight of probabilities.

The usual instruction to juries about the proof standard does not mention "beyond a reasonable doubt." It is currently written as follows:

How can the prosecution be successful in proving that the defendant is guilty? The answer is by proving that you are sure that you are 100% sure. Anything less will suffice. If, after considering all the evidence, you are sure there is no doubt that the person accused of the crime is innocent, then you have to return the verdict of guilt. If you're not sure that you are sure, the verdict is "Not Guilty"

It is precisely the reason why crime is a fascinating and challenging subject of law to study.

Classification of offenses

Summary, indictable and 'either-way' offences

The choice of the tribunal that will resolve the case is contingent on how you categorise the offense. Certain types of crimes are considered more severe than others. This determines the court that will be able to decide on the crime.

Summary offences are considered the least serious of crimes. They can be classified as common assault or the criminal offence of damage (subject to the amount of the damage). They are only able to be examined in the Magistrates' Court. Magistrates can give a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail and a fine of up to PS5,000. This is the most severe punishment that can be given.

A jury and judge can only hear a case of an indictable offence within the Crown Court. The maximum punishment is determined by the statute responsible for creating or regulating the offense. For example, there are punishments for manslaughter, murder, causing serious bodily harm on purpose, rape, blackmail, and stealing.

There are many crimes whose severity is contingent on the circumstances of the event. These are referred to as' either-or' offences' and can be tried at the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court. Magistrates first decide which court is best suited to hear the offence and in which court the criminal case will begin. If the Magistrates determine that they're sufficient to handle the case based on the evidence of the allegations and the power of the sentence, they'll provide an informal trial. At the time this was written, though, the defendant could choose to have a jury trial instead.

If, however, magistrates determine that the facts point to an infraction that is likely to attract an amount that is beyond their authority and they decline jurisdiction, they'll dismiss the case. In this scenario, the defendant loses the option to choose, and the case is transferred to the Crown Court. Some offences that can be considered either way include crimes that cause damage (depending on the amount), assaults that cause physical harm or injury, theft, fraud, and burglary.

A variety of offences could exist for the prosecutor. After carefully analysing all possible possibilities, they will likely choose the most serious offence they can prove with evidence. Still, it is the lawyer's job to spot any possible crimes and look at the situation critically before giving advice.

The goals of the criminal law

What's the goal or purpose of the criminal law? In essence, it's to create a stable society with rules that spell the guidelines for the behaviour that its citizens are expected to exhibit. The way to achieve this can be summarized by referring to the following fundamental principles:

1. Notice of unacceptable behaviour.

2. The protection of society.

3. Right to an impartial trial.

4. Innocent until proven guilty.

5. Penalties for the perpetrators of the offence and deterrence for dangerous behaviour.

An excellent example of the objective of criminal law was offered by the American Law Institute when they determined the goals that law must achieve in Section 1 of the Draft Model Penal Code:

  • To prohibit and stop any behaviour that inexplicably is causing or threatening to cause substantial harm to individuals or public interest;

  • The purpose of this law is to control public people whose conduct suggests they are likely to commit crimes;

  • To protect conduct not a crime from being deemed criminal conduct;

  • To provide fair warning of what kind of behaviour is considered to be a crime;

  • To tell the difference between serious and minor crimes based on good reasons.

How is the difference among civil and criminal laws made?

Through your study of the law of criminals so far ought to contribute to illustrating the difference between civil and criminal law. Remember that they are two distinct legal areas. It isn't always simple, partly because there is a substantial overlap between them. A similar activity can be considered a civil offence (often an act of tort) and a criminal offense. When Fred strikes Jim, Fred can be accused of battery. He could also be accused of the offence of trespass to the victim. However, it's possible to establish some fundamental distinctions.

While crime is considered an act of the public (in the case above, the public interest is in preventing these actions), civil wrongs are personal issues that must be settled between the parties. This is evident to all parties in any proceeding following an incident. Any public member could be prosecuted for battery by Fred (though in practice, the state, in the form of the Crown Prosecution Service, will handle it). But only Jim, as the one who suffered the trespass, can bring a lawsuit against Fred as a tort.

A crime's commission and successful conviction will result in punishment, such as a state fine, jail time, or both. In a case involving tort or breach of contract, on the other hand, the defendant will have to pay damages to the person who was hurt or follow an injunction.

How to learn the law: adopt the mindset of a lawyer

You are now aware that 'offences' will inform you about the behaviour controlled or prohibited by society. They include, among other things, defining the rules that have to be violated to be found guilty. This course emphasises the analysis and implementation of laws. In your course, you will often be given actual scenarios to deal with particular areas or principles of law. Your first responsibility will be to identify which possible offences have been committed. It will be an easy task, and you'll see that this is only the beginning of your legal investigation.

You will learn how criminal law works during your court appearance (see the section below for more information on activities). It is, in essence, an adversarial system. For the benefit of the government, the prosecutor asserts that the defendant committed a public offence that is deserving of punishment. The defendant has the right to deny the accusation. He has the right to ask for and get a fair trial. He can also ask that the prosecution and his lawyer prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did the crime they are accusing him of.

This is what makes us lawyers and sets us apart from non-lawyers. The average member of the public is often confused by our legal system. Undoubtedly, influenced by the glamour of television and high-suspense court dramas, people's perceptions of justice can be altered. (Try and locate an episode of The Bill where defendants are detained without evidence to support them.) Comments such as "there is no fire without smoke," "the police would not detain the suspect if they did not have evidence to support their claim or evidence," and "They deserve to be locked up for good" have been made. "Life should be lived" is common. These views stem from a long history of society that enforces the moral code necessary to ensure an orderly and peaceful society, and it is a good thing. We've been raised to believe that we should never cause harm to anyone, much less murder them and that we should not use things that don't belong to us or don't belong to us. So, in some ways, more information from society could be upsetting. Lawyers should be careful to keep in mind that those who express these views could be on the jury deciding their client's case.

Think about this: A police officer enters an alleyway and sees Darren kneeling next to a dead body on the ground. Darren appears to be covered in blood and holds an unclean knife. When confronted by a police officer, Darren gets up and escapes. Darren is eventually arrested. He doesn't just explain his appearance in the alleyway. He is accused of murder. Does he have any responsibility for the murder or the death of the person killed? What would a member of the general public think? In these circumstances, what could you expect if you were given the task of defending Darren on the ground of murder, to which he has not pleaded guilty? What could you say to support your client's defence and convince jurors that he is innocent?

In this case, the lawyer's mind does not concentrate on the desired or anticipated result, unlike an average person. You'll often encounter situations where preconceived notions challenge you. This is because lawyers focus their minds on a precise and thorough examination of whether the rules that govern an offence break the law instead of relying on a personal feeling or intuition of what they think is the correct conclusion. When looking at the above example, the lawyer will be seeking responses to these questions: What does the defendant need to do to be found guilty of murder? What do the laws (statute or case law) state about the circumstances and how this behaviour can cause a defendant to be criminally liable? What is the situation in this particular case? Are there any doubts that would prevent the judge/jury from being confident that the defendant has committed the specific offence? This thinking process differentiates you from the average person and their perception of law and justice.

In law school and gaining the ability to think like a lawyer, you should learn to apply the following approach:

  1. Identify the parties involved and also the relevant offence(s).

  2. The law needs to say what needs to happen for these crimes to happen. It will probably involve setting the actus reus and men's rea for the crime, which are the rules that say what actions must be done for the crime to be committed. This is talked about in section 1.5 below.

  3. Understand and explain what the law requires to satisfy these requirements. Statutory offences can provide some direction from the interpretive provisions in the act. But, in the end, it is also necessary to look at the cases to find out the way courts have interpreted these provisions. When looking at cases, it's often sensible to understand the facts, as this can help a lawyer determine the significance of this particular situation. But the fundamental law principle comes from these cases and needs to be analysed and mastered before being implemented. The ability to calculate the ratios of cases is not an easy task, even for an experienced lawyer. Training and perseverance can significantly improve this vital ability.

  4. Apply this legal principle to your specific situation. The art of "legal reasoning" is, without a doubt, an essential skill to acquire as a student. It will be a crucial component of your education and practice. In certain instances, this procedure will be straightforward. If the evidence clears the defendant to prove in a plea, then a guilty plea could be the only alternative. But there would be very little enjoyment in learning how to handle these scenarios during a legal course! The student-at-law will be taught to utilise the law to counsel those involved in contested cases in criminal cases. This lesson will give you the chance to do just that. A lawyer needs to be able to use legal justification. It is among the most challenging abilities to acquire, for sure. However, similar to developing any other talent, it takes time and must be practised regularly. Keep in mind that even dentists cannot learn the technique of this crucial drill in just one day!

So, when confronted with a difficult question, students must learn to think critically about the law according to the method laid out above and then use it in the case's specifics. If you believe there's a compelling argument against the client you represent, make sure you're satisfied with the law, not your own opinion or intuition. It is crucial to ensure that all criminal elements are legally complied with and beyond a reasonable suspicion. What if, for instance, in the case above, Darren was acquainted with the victim and were fighting just moments before the victim was thrown to the floor, or his fingerprints were found upon the blade? Guilty? What happens if Darren says he is completely numb from the time spent on the street? Finding credible evidence may initially seem impossible and even useless. But this is an essential part of what we do. Be aware of any flaws since questions can be the basis for proper and valid legal arguments against the allegations that are being made. You should keep in mind that your client has the right to challenge you. A jury or judge determines your client's guilt or innocence. However, your role is to find the law given to the court and then presented to the jury

When faced with a challenging issue, students should be taught to consider the law in accordance with the procedure described above and then apply it to the specifics of the case.

The essential elements of criminal liability

After you have completed the initial step properly and identified the relevant offence, you now need to know how to recognize the necessary elements to be done to commit the offence.

In the context of logic, we could consider a crime to consist of three components: the actus Reus men's rea and (a negative element) the lack of legitimate defence.

Actus Reus

The term "criminal" is typically used to refer to an action or series of actions for which the person is accused of committing a legally prohibited offence. This is an essential aspect of crime. To aid in determining the applicable rules, crimes are classified in various ways. It must be remembered that many crimes are categorised into more than one category.

Conduct Offences

In some instances, the law can only require specific acts that the defendant commits to meet the actus reus. For instance, fraud based on fraudulent declaration (Fraud Act 2006, s.2) is a crime that requires the defendant to provide a false or false representation. There aren't any adverse consequences to this type of action.

Result Offences

For criminal acts to have an actus reus effect, it takes more than just the actions of the defendant. The action has to have a particular outcome. For instance, murder is one example in which the defendant's actions should result in the death of the victim. It must be proven that the actions led to the outcome in these instances. Causation.

Surrounding Circumstances

In addition to the requirement of the act (and sometimes the precise consequence), in some instances, the definition of the term "actus reus" can be based on particular situations. For example, in section. 1(1) in the Theft Act of 1968, the crime considered to be theft refers to taking of property owned by another person. The prosecution must prove that the defendant's action of taking the item was done because the item was owned by a person who was not the person who stole the item.


Sometimes, a defendant could have committed the actus recurs of an offence, even if the defendant did not take any action. Even though tort law has a general rule, there is no crime for failing to act. In some circumstances, the law of criminal procedure imposes a legal obligation to take action and, in the event of a breach, can cause criminal liability.

Men’s Rea

The majority of crimes require that the perpetrator not simply commit the crime but also be guilty in some way. However, this phrase could be a bit misleading because it doesn't suggest that the defendant is morally responsible; it simply means that he can demonstrate the mental component of the offence in the law.

Men's rea is an art term encompassing a range of mental states that could require proof to prove the actus reus involved in the crime. A specific actus-reus could include more than one kind of men's rea needed for the complete committing of the offense. Burglary is one illustration of this.

The mindset the prosecution needs to prove to be able to convict will differ from one crime to the next. It is essential to understand the many forms of men's rea and know the kind needed to be used in each crime.

A brief overview of the various kinds of men's rea follows.

Certain crimes require that the defendant plan an exact crime or consequence. One of the most prominent examples is murder, where the defendant has to cause the victim to die or cause severe injuries to the victim: R v Vickers [1957] 2 QB 664.

The defendant may be found guilty if he could control the outcome or was not aware of what would happen. This might be the situation, for example, concerning the criminal offence of criminal damage. Recklessness is when someone is willing to take a risk that is not justified, being aware that specific consequences could result in the event of taking this risk.

Some offences use different words in defining the roles of men. Many offences use the term "maliciously." People have said that the actus in reu should be able to be done on purpose or recklessly, like in the case of offence s.20 of the Person Act of 1861.

In accordance with the provisions of s. 22(1) in the Theft Act of 1968, an individual could breach the law by handling stolen goods if the person knows or suspects that they have been stolen and receives the item under R v Hall (19850 81 Cr App R 260. The statute is believed to provide those familiar with a specific situation or are likely to know that the particular scenario exists. This is only an illustration as this crime isn't taught in this course.

As with most violations of the Theft Act, the defendant is required to prove that they were honest when managing the property. The term "dishonesty" isn't specified in the statute. However, there was a case where the Court of Appeal considered this requirement during the trial of Ghosh v. R. [1982] QB 1053 and a test for practicality was devised.

However, certain offences don't require a men's rea regarding every aspect of the crime. In Cundy v. LeCoq (1884), LR 13 QBD 207, D had been found guilty of selling liquor to a drunken individual, thereby infringing the 13th section of the Licensing Act 1872. D wasn't in the position of knowing the client was drinking. The statute doesn't mention the obligation that the defendant is aware of or can discover that the client was drinking. So, the Divisional Court held that he was guilty of selling the drink to the buyer. These are known as strict liability offences. This does not mean that mental faculties are not required, but that men's rea is needed for at the very least one crucial element. In the preceding example, D would not have been criminally responsible was he not aware of his responsibility to serve the drink was served to him as an alcoholic drink.

Sometimes, no men's rea is needed in any way. It is just necessary to establish that specific actions were taken. The offences are known as absolute liability offenses: R v Larsonneur (1933) 24 Cr App R 74, Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent The Times 28 March 1983.

Sometimes, no men's rea is needed in any way. It is only essential to demonstrate that certain activities were done. The following are examples of absolute responsibility offences: R v Larsonneur (1933) 24 Cr App R 74, Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent The Times 28 March 1983.

The Coincidence of Actus Reus and Men's Rea

For the prosecutor to secure the conviction for an offence, they must show that the men's rea and actus reus occurred simultaneously. There are situations in which the law can determine that this is the case, even though there isn't a particular coincidence.


We have said that even if it can be proven that the defendant was guilty of the actus-reus and men's rea offences and is found to have committed the offences, he could still be exempt from the liability if there's a reason or justification for his actions


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