Professor John Child Inaugural Lecture

Law Building Lecture Theatre 1
Thursday 23 March 2023 (18:00-19:00)

“Wrong on many levels”: Understanding crimes across and between events

Join Professor John Child for his Inaugural Lecture.

Criminal offences are typically structured, analysed and understood as ‘snap-shot’ events, taking place at a single point in time and space. A defendant (D) commits criminal damage, for example, when his conduct causes damage to another’s property, and at that moment (in action) D at least foresees the risk that he will damage another’s property. Although D’s circumstances or motivations before the event, and his actions or remorse after it, may be relevant to a narrowly defined set of defences, or to broader assessments of blame when sentencing, the definitional focus of the offence itself remains narrowly tied within the single event.

A single event focus allows us to locate the offence jurisdictionally, and keeps the assessment of liability manageable through its exclusion of outside circumstances. It is also central to our assessments of blame, focusing on D’s conduct to locate harms (e.g. what did the conduct cause; in what circumstances was it performed) and to assign culpability (e.g. was it performed intentionally; did D realise what might happen). In this manner, core building blocks of the criminal law’s definitional general part – conduct, causation, voluntariness, mens rea – are theorised and defined in accordance with this single-event structure.

However, much of the criminal law involves situations which diverge from the single-event paradigm, and this has been a particular focus of my research. This lecture explores some examples including inchoate offences, where D is criminalised for his conduct at time 1 (T1) because of his intentions as to a future point of harm causing (T2); complicity, where D’s conduct and intentions at T1 derive additional blame from the crimes of another at T2; as well as so-called prior fault rules, where D’s apparent lack of mental culpability at T2 is substituted for by his earlier conduct (e.g. becoming voluntarily intoxicated) at T1. I discuss the similar challenges that arise across these examples, and how a failure to recognise these similarities has led to quite different (and often problematic) legal rules and outcomes. I contend that the definitional general part concepts defined to engage with single-event offences are often ill-equipped for application to multi-event offences, and that new definitions are therefore necessary.