Course: Introduction / Criminal Law
In criminal law, causation is an element of some crimes that requires that the criminal act (actus reus) cause the harm the law seeks to prohibit.
Causation is a fundamental principle in criminal law that requires a connection between the defendant’s conduct and the harm caused to the victim. It is an essential element of many criminal offenses, particularly those involving serious harm, such as homicide or manslaughter. Without causation, a person cannot be held criminally responsible for the harm they caused.
Causation can be broken down into two distinct types: cause in fact and proximate cause. Cause in fact refers to the actual cause of the harm, while proximate cause refers to the legal cause of the harm. In other words, cause in fact asks whether the defendant’s conduct was the direct cause of the harm, while proximate cause asks whether the defendant’s conduct was sufficiently connected to the harm to be considered legally responsible.
For example, in a murder case, the prosecution must prove that the defendant’s actions were the cause of the victim’s death. The cause in fact requirement would ask whether the defendant’s actions directly caused the victim’s death, while the proximate cause requirement would ask whether the defendant’s actions were the legal cause of the victim’s death. In other words, did the defendant’s actions sufficiently connect to the victim’s death to hold the defendant legally responsible for the murder?
In addition to causation, criminal law also recognizes the concept of intervening causes. An intervening cause is an event that occurs after the defendant’s actions that contributes to the harm caused to the victim. If the intervening cause was not foreseeable or was the sole cause of the harm, then the defendant may not be held criminally responsible for the harm caused.
For example, if a person is driving recklessly and hits a pedestrian who then dies as a result of medical complications, the driver may argue that the medical complications were an intervening cause that relieved them of criminal responsibility for the death. However, if the medical complications were foreseeable or were caused by the initial injuries sustained in the accident, the driver may still be held criminally responsible for the death.
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Last Modified: 04/09/2023