Actus Reus relates to the action of a crime, rather than the
crime’s mental element (the mens rea)
In relation to criminal liability, Edward Coke states that “Actus non facit
reum nisi mens sit rea” – “An act does not make a person guilty unless their
mind is also guilty”.
The actus reus of each crime is specific to that crime.
Examples of this would be taking something that belongs to another, which
equates to theft; or delivering a blow to someone’s head, which equates to
In almost every crime it is crucial for the prosecution to demonstrate
that some action of the defendant resulted in that criminal act.
Reus must be voluntary
Whether the actus reus is committed by either act of omission, it must be
committed voluntarily – meaning being able to control one’s body/actions.
Acts and omissions – crimes can be committed by either doing something or by
failure to do something.
Failure to do something or intervene if the offence in question is capable of
being committed by omission.
Conduct with a resulting effect. Typically an injury, i.e
death or grievous bodily harm.
It is also important to note the concept of the chain of causation.
This chain offers a connection between the act of the
defendant and the consequence which ensues. The initial act need not always be illegal,
but the result (consequence) needs to be illegal or forbidden in order for it
to be a crime.
This consequently forms part of the actus reus. The crime must
be caused by the defendant.
v Pagett, 1983
The defendant, Pagett, was being pursued by armed forces at
his home. In order to avoid arrest, Pagett used his girlfriend (16 years old
and pregnant) as a shield, whilst also shooting at the police. Police returned
fire and the girlfriend got caught in the crossfire and was hit by a fatal
Pagett argued that he caused no physical injury himself to
the victim. It was found that he prompted the chain of events that led to her demise. He was held to be the legal cause of death.
His actions contributed heavily in resulting in her death as it would have been
conceivable for him to recognise that police would return fire if they were
being shot at.
Although he did not shoot the victim himself, he was accountable as his act was
the most culpable in the events leading to her death.
v White, 1910
White intended to kill his mother. He added potassium cyanide
to his mother’s wine glass, with the sole intention to poison and kill her.
That night, White’s mother died in her sleep of a heart attack. It was found
that this heart attack was unconnected to the poison, even though she had drank
some of the drink. She had simply died of natural causes.
It was found that White did not cause his mother’s death
because regardless of the poison in the drink, his mother would still have died.
White was cleared of murder but was found guilty of an attempt to murder. There
was no actus reus of murder present, as although the outcome was still the same
(the defendant’s wish for his mother’s death) his action did not cause the
death to occur.
v Miller, 1982
This is an English case relating to criminal law which demonstrates
how actus reus can be understood to be not only an act, but a
failure to act.
Miller returned to his place of residence after heavy alcohol
consumption on a night out. Shortly after returning home intoxicated, he smoked
a cigarette and fell asleep on his mattress with the cigarette still lit. The
smoke had woken Miller; he had awoken to see the fire started on the mattress
yet proceeded to leave this room and vacate another, doing nothing about the
small fire which was lit. He proceeded to go back to sleep.
Miller was found liable for creating a dangerous situation
and failing to alert emergency services. He was therefore found liable for his
omission to call a fire brigade, to which he owed obligation.
v Dytham, 1979
A police officer in uniform watched as a man was being hit
and kicked to death in a gutter only a short distance away, outside a
The police officer witnessed the assault but made no attempt
to intervene or beckon assistance for others (e.g. police assistance) to come
to the victim’s aid.
The officer was convicted of misconduct for wilful neglect, under the common
Actus reus relates to just one element of an offence. The
actus reus consists of prohibited conduct (by either act or by omission),
prohibited circumstances and illegal results.
The elements as stated above demonstrate actus reus in its
different forms. To recap, there are several elements that constitute actus
reus – it must be voluntary, it can be committed by either doing something or
by failure to act. Failure to do something or intervene if the offence in
question is adept of being committed by omission. The conduct leaves a
resulting effect which is typically a physical injury, i.e death or grievous
bodily harm, amongst other results.
M, Cooper S, “Cases and Materials on Criminal Law” (9th edn, Sweet &
S, Finch E, “Criminal Law” (1st edn, Pearson Education Limited 2007)
J, Bryant M, “Briefcase on Criminal Law” (3rd edn, Cavendish Publishing, 2004)
R, “Criminal” Law (1st edn, Oxford 2009)
C, Huxley Binns R, “Criminal Law: The Fundamentals” (1st Edn, Sweet &
“Omissions and Criminal Liability”, The Irish Jurist 1993, 28(1), 56-78
The King v White; www.westlaw.co.uk Last accessed 08/01/2018
R. v David Keith Pagett; www.westlaw.co.uk Last accessed 11/01/2018
Regina v Dytham; www.westlaw.co.uk Last accessed 05/01/2018
Regina Respondent v Miller Appellant; www.westlaw.co.uk Last accessed