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Defence of Automatism

In: Historical Events

Submitted By viv3
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How have the courts limited the availability of the defence of automatism?

1) general principle regarding automatism 2) automatism caused by a “disease of the mind” 3) automatism caused by the voluntary consumption of alcohol or “dangerous” drugs and 4) other cases of self-induced automatism

A state of automatism is one where the acts of a person are beyond their physical control. Typical examples are sleepwalking, acts done in a hypnotic trance, reflex actions and convulsions. Such states normally excuse a defendant for the consequences of his actions on the basis that no responsibility can be fairly attached to unwilled actions. However, the “defence” is limited in application and does not always result in a complete acquittal.

Loss of control
Firstly, in Attorney General’s Reference (No 2 of 1992), the COA held that automatism is only available where there was a complete destruction of voluntary control. The defendant, a lorry driver was charged with causing death by reckless driving. He raised the defence of automatism and produced expert evidence that the repetitive visual stimuli experience as he drove along straight, flat, featureless motorways had induced a trance-like state. The judge allowed the defence to go before the jury and he was acquitted. The prosecution appealed successfully. The COA held that as there had not been a total destruction of voluntary control, the judge ought not to have allowed the defence of automatism to go to the jury. The defendant had been driving with awareness albeit diminished and had amanged to steer the vehicle for about half a mile. It is useful to note that The Draft Code (Law Com No. 177) would allow the defence where a person was deprived of effective control, but this Code has not become law yet.

Insane automatism
Secondly, where automatism results from a “disease of the mind”, the defendant is entitled only to a qualified acquittal- “not guilty by reason of insanity”.

The defence of insanity is defined in the M’Naghten Rules (1843). It must be prove d that, at the time he committed the act, the accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, due to a disease of the mind, as either not to know the nature and quality of his act or, if he did know that, he did not that what he was doing was wrong.…...

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