The case of Anderton v Ryan [1985] AC 560 serves as a critical examination of the legality of attempted crimes under English law, making it an essential study for law students. This case addresses the complexities of criminal intent and the factual impossibility of committing a crime, offering valuable insights into criminal jurisprudence.

  • In the case of Anderton v Ryan [1985] AC 560, sections 1(2) and 1(3) did not turn innocent acts into an offence of attempt to commit a crime merely because the person believed his actions to be criminal.

Facts of the Case Anderton v Ryan

  • Between 6 April 1983 and 10 April 1983, D (the appellant) had received a video cassette recorder worth £500, which she believed had been stolen, but this could not actually be evidenced; this was against s.22 of the Theft Act 1968 – knowing or believing for an item to be stolen.
  • Initially, D lied to the prosecutor, claiming that she had bought the recorder for £110 from an individual she refused to name
  • The prosecutor preferred to pursue D for a dishonest attempt to handle a video recorder knowing or believing it to be stolen, in breach of s.1(1) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 because it was enough for D to have believed that the goods were illegally obtained (nowhere did the theft of these goods had to be proved)  
  • D argued that the evidence could be used to support only the handling of the recorder and not the attempted handling.

Issues in Anderton v Ryan [1985] AC 560

  • D was charged with dishonestly attempting to handle a video cassette recorder, knowing or suspecting it to be stolen, contrary to s.1(1) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981
  • D could not be convicted under s.1 of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 because she thought that the recorder had been stolen – the prosecutor’s appeal was allowed to the House of Lords

Held by the House of Lords

  • Appeal allowed – held that D was not guilty of attempting to commit the crime; dishonestly handling goods in the belief that they were stolen when in fact they were not meant that D was not guilty of attempting dishonestly to handle stolen goods

Lord Roskill   

Believed the appeal should succeed and found difficulties interpreting s.1(3) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 and determining the subsection’s ambit

  • This was Lord Roskill’s commentary:
  • For the reasons I have given I summarise my conclusions thus: (1) Sections 1(1) and (4) are designed to replace as a matter of statute law the former relevant common law. But they would not of themselves eliminate any of the problems created by Reg. v. Smith (Roger) [1975] A.C. 476. Indeed they would preserve them. But it was plainly the intention of the statute to change some at least of the law as declared in the speeches in that case.
  • (2) Subsection (2) certainly covers the pickpocket – empty pocket case. It may cover more but I do not find it necessary to consider the precise scope of this subsection.
  • (3) Subsection (3) covers the case of a defendant possessed of a specific criminal intent which he erroneously believes to be possible of achievement but which in fact is not possible of achievement.
  • (4) Subsection (3) does not, however, make a defendant liable to conviction for an attempt to commit an offence when, whatever his belief, on the true facts he could never have committed an offence had he gone beyond his attempt so as to achieve fruition.’ [at p.581]

Significance of the Case in Legal Development

Anderton v Ryan is pivotal in the context of criminal law, particularly regarding attempts and impossibility:

  1. R v Shivpuri [1986]: Overturned Anderton v Ryan, clarifying that defendants may be guilty of attempting impossible crimes if their intentions align with committing a crime.
  2. R v Gullefer [1990]: Explored the boundaries of what constitutes an “attempt” in criminal law, further building on the principles discussed in Anderton v Ryan.
  3. R v Geddes [1996]: Addressed preparatory acts and when they cross the threshold into criminal attempts, referring back to the standards set in Anderton v Ryan.

Exam Questions and Answers

Below, you will find answers to questions that are most commonly asked based on this case.

How has the legal interpretation of “attempt” evolved in subsequent cases following Anderton v Ryan?

Since Anderton v Ryan, the definition of “attempt” in UK law has evolved, particularly through the case of R v Shivpuri [1986], where it was clarified that a person could be guilty of an attempt even if the crime was factually or legally impossible to complete, as long as the intent was present. This marked a shift towards focusing on the defendant’s state of mind rather than the feasibility of completing the crime.

What are the current challenges in prosecuting cases of attempted crimes involving digital technology?

In the digital age, prosecuting attempted crimes involves unique challenges, especially with crimes like hacking or online fraud where the attempt can cross international borders and involve sophisticated technologies. For example, in R v Collins [2018], issues of jurisdiction and specific intent were critical in determining the culpability of attempted online offences, requiring robust international cooperation and forensic digital expertise.

How do courts currently differentiate between mere preparation and an attempt in complex conspiracy cases?

Current UK law differentiates between mere preparation and an attempt by assessing the proximity to the full commission of the crime. In R v Campbell [1991], the court held that moving towards the execution of a criminal plan (such as approaching a bank with robbery tools) could transition from preparation to attempt. The courts look for a significant overt act that clearly directs towards the commission of the crime as outlined in R v Geddes [1996], where mere presence in a school with questionable intentions was not sufficient to constitute an attempt.