Voluntary Act Requirement


Fundamentals of Criminal Law

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Jack Brown Ph.D.


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There is a general legal requirement that a criminal act must be voluntary. This means that under the law a criminal act generally must consist of some movement of the body and free will. For example, if your doctor is checking your reflexes and the reflex action causes you to kick him in the face, then the act is not a battery since you did not intend to kick him.

The courts have ruled that the voluntariness requirement does not protect you from criminal liability if what you do is dangerous under the circumstances. For example, people who know that they are subject to epileptic attacks at any time and operate a vehicle with that knowledge are criminally liable if they kill someone while having a seizure.

It’s Greek to Me

People often use the phrase “It’s Greek to me” to suggest that they don’t understand a particular word or phrase.  The history of our legal system has exposed it to several different forms of the English language as well as several other languages (none of which were Greek).  During the middle ages, literacy was rare, and, as a general rule, only clerics (men of the church) could read and write. During those times, Latin was the language of the Bible and the church.  Thus many writings from the middle ages were in Latin rather than middle English.

Always keep in mind that the law is a very conservative profession, and that change is slow and traditional ways of doing and saying things are valued.  Many legal terms come to us from Latin, as well as Middle French and other historical sources. Many authors have made compelling arguments that lawyers should simplify and modernize the language of the profession so that everyone can understand the law.  This has yet to happen.

By convention, Latin words that have become a part of the English language through common use are now considered English words, and writers treat them as any other English words.  When a word is still considered to be “foreign,” it is usually set of in italics to signal to the reader that the word or phrase is Latin (or some other language). Since such terms are plentiful in the law, it is essential that serious students of the law commit the common ones to memory.

References and Further Reading

“Voluntary Act.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law.  Retrieved September 26, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voluntary-act

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  09/26/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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