Problem Solving in Criminal Law

What are the acceptable limits of the criminal law? 

This is crucial normative question, and one which has become increasingly important over recent decades with the proliferation of ever more diverse and complex forms of liability. One response is to devise a grand theory of criminal law that seeks to capture its essence within a single definition or formula; providing guidelines on the legitimate and (more importantly) the illegitimate targets of future offences. It is doubtful, however, that any single unifying theory of this kind is possible, and certainly doubtful that the abstract terms necessary for it could provide anything more than vague signalling to law reform. To address the central question then, and to do so in a more applicable manner, a narrower lens is required. Rather than asking for limits to criminalisation in general, we focus on the acceptable limits and fair construction of criminal rules as they apply within different sub-fields. 

Across a series of ‘problem solving’ projects, Dr John Child’s research locates and critically engages with problematic sub-fields throughout the criminal law. This includes work that challenges the design of criminal offences and defences, arguing that certain forms of liability are over-criminalising in their effects (eg, work on complicity, inchoate liability, prior-fault, etc), as well as work defending minimum requirements for criminal liability, such as the voluntary act requirement.

John is currently leading two main collaborative projects: the AHRC funded ‘Criminal Law Reform Now Network’ project, and the British Academy funded ‘Prior-Fault’ project. The aim across both ‘problem solving’ projects is to produce clear and sensible routes forward for law reform.

Criminal Law Reform Now Network

The CLRNN is a collaboration of academics and other legal experts that works independently to identify and engage with problem areas of the criminal law, collaborating across all stages of research, policy formation, and the reform impact agenda. Our current work explores (a) the Computer Misuse Act 1990, and (b) the regime of private prosecutions. The CLRNN currently includes over 150 members.

The ‘Computer Misuse’ Report was launched open-access in 2020. There is considerable Home Office and Parliamentary interest in reforming the Computer Misuse Act 1990 in light of fast moving technological and regulatory developments. This includes the creation of new defences to protect legitimate practices within the cyber security industry, better guidance for prosecutors, as well as new sentencing guidelines.  See images from the launch event.

The ‘Private Prosecutions’ Report will also be launched in 2020. Working with experts from charities and others who are regular users of private prosecutions, practitioners (including the Private Prosecutors Association), and the Crown Prosecution Association, this report aims to rationalise a system of prosecution that is too often characterised by uncertainty and wasted resources.    

Supported by:

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Prior-Fault Project

This project brings together researchers from law, philosophy and neuroscience to explore criminal blame for conduct that leads to accidental or mistaken harms. For example, where an intoxicated defendant accidentally damages property, or harms a person in the mistaken belief that self-defence was necessary, to what extent (and how) should their choice to become intoxicated effect our judgements of blame? Prior-fault rules, creating liability in these circumstances, can be found across most criminal law jurisdictions; but have been widely criticised for their over-criminalising effects.    

The project is run in collaboration with the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, Australian Law Reform Commission, New South Wales Law Reform Commission, South Australian Law Reform Institute, Tasmania Law Reform Institute, Jersey Law Commission, Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong, New Jersey Law Reform Commission, Scottish Law Commission, as well as several less formal collaborations beyond this. 

This research is supported by the British Academy’s Knowledge Frontiers: International Interdisciplinary Research Projects 2019.

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Research team

Academic outputs



Problem solving in Criminal Law - Dr John Child