Murder Article 08 JAN 2024

What Breaks the Chain of Causation in Murder?

The chain of causation refers to the causal link between an accused’s conduct and the victim’s death. For cases of murder, section 18(1)(a) of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) states:

  • Murder shall be taken to have been committed where the act of the accused, or thing by him or her omitted to be done, causing the death charged, was done or omitted with reckless indifference to human life, or with intent to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm upon some person, or done in an attempt to commit, or during or immediately after the commission, by the accused, or some accomplice with him or her, of a crime punishable by imprisonment for life or for 25 years.

Thus, to be convicted of murder, the Prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused’s conduct caused the victim’s death. However, if the chain of causation cannot be established, then the accused cannot be convicted of murder, as it cannot be said that they caused the death of the victim.

In general, the test of causation is whether the accused’s act was an “operating and substantial” cause of the death of the victim. This was discussed in detail in the cases of R v Smith [1959] 2 QB 35and R v Evans & Gardiner (No 2) [1976] VR 523in which it was noted that instances which break the chain of causation are known as ‘novus actus interveniens’, which is Latin for a ‘new intervening act’. Examples of this can include:

Exceptional Medical Negligence

In R v Jordan (1956) 30 Cr App R 152, “palpably wrong” medical treatment constituted a novus actus interveniens. In this case, the victim was stabbed by the accused and was given abnormal quantities of antibiotics that clogged his lungs. Medical professionals continued to administer the antibiotics despite signs of intolerance being shown. The victim then died of pneumonia eight days after his admission to hospital, where at the time of death, there was evidence his wounds were starting to heal. Accordingly, it was found that the death of the victim was not consequent from the wound inflicted, but rather because of the negligent medical treatment, therefore absolving the accused of liability for murder as the chain of causation was broken.

Although, it is important to note that this does not mean all instances of medical intervention will break the chain of causation. In R v Smith [1959] 2 QB 35, the victim was stabbed by the accused, and later died following thoroughly bad treatment from the doctor who did not realise the victim’s lung had been punctured. In this case, the Court determined that the chain of causation was not broken, as the initial act of stabbing was the operating cause of death. Importantly, it was found that only if the secondary cause was so overwhelming so as to make the original act merely part of the history, then it can be said that the death does not flow from the wound formed by the act of the accused.

Act of Nature

In R v Hallett [1969] SASR 141, it was found that the extraordinary operation of natural forces might be regarded as breaking the chain of causation, such as an earthquake or tsunami. In this case, the victim was unconscious and drowned after being enveloped by the rising the tide at a beach. The act of nature was not found to be a novus actus interveniens because the accused’s conduct in choking the victim unconscious was the operating and substantial cause that led to the victim’s drowning and subsequent death.

Act of Victim

In certain circumstances, the voluntary and informed act of an adult negatives the causal connection. In Burns v The Queen [2012] HCA 35, the accused supplied drugs to the victim who died from the combined effect of the supplied drugs and another prescription drug. The Court held that the supply from the accused did not substantially cause the victim’s death, as the supplier should not bear responsibility for the “callous disregard” for the life of the drug user.

However, many instances of voluntary and informed acts may not break the causal chain. In Royall v R, it was found that the victim’s death by jumping out from a window after being assaulted did not break the chain of causation, as the conduct of the accused induced a well-founded apprehension of physical harm upon the victim, such as to make it a natural or reasonable consequence that the victim would seek to escape.

Additionally, in R v Holland (1841) 174 ER 313 and R v Blaue [1975] 1 WLR 1411 it was held that the refusal of medical treatment or medical advice does not break the chain of causation, even if the refusal is unreasonable, so long as at the time of death the original wound is still the operating and a substantial cause of death.

If you or a loved one is charged with murder, contact our experienced team at Jackson John Defence Lawyers today. We will help you navigate this complex and evolving area of law.