This case summary is for law students studying the defence of automatism in criminal law. In Attorney General’s Reference (No. 2 of 1992) [1994] Q.B. 91, the Court of Appeal examined the defence’s applicability when a driver claimed to be driving without awareness. The case provides an analysis of how involuntary actions are treated under the law, making it important for understanding legal defenses.

  • In the case of Attorney General’s Reference (No. 2 of 1992) [1994] Q.B. 91, it was held that the defence of automatism requires a total loss of control. This is not satisfied where the defendant claims to be ‘driving without awareness,’ or any other description that only indicates reduced impaired, or partial loss of control.

Facts of the Case Attorney General’s Reference (No. 2 of 1992)

  • D was a HGV driver. On 16th April 1991, he started to drive at 11am and was on the motorway all day aside from regular breaks.
  • After a 45-minute break, D set off from a service station at 10.30pm. D, seemingly on purpose, drove into the hard shoulder where a white van with its hazard lights flashing and a recovery van were parked.
  • D steered in a straight line, but only started to break at the moment of impact. The lorry hit the cars and killed 2 people.
  • At this point D had been driving for over 6 hours, covering 343 miles, and he had taken adequate breaks according to regulation.
  • D was charged with causing deaths by reckless driving. An expert witness gave evidence that D was suffering from ‘driving without awareness,’ a condition in which his ability to avoid collisions ceased to exist.
  • D raised the defence of non-insane automatism. This question was left to the jury and D was acquitted.

Issues in Attorney General’s Reference (No. 2 of 1992)

  • Could ‘driving without awareness’ satisfy the defence of automatism?

Held by the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)

  • Finding for C, that driving without awareness could not amount to automatism. This required a total loss of voluntary control, not just impaired or reduced control. The expert evidence indicated that D still retained some voluntary control, such as being able to street straight and react to strong stimuli. The question of automatism should not have been directed to the jury.

Lord Taylor C.J.

  • The expert witness stated that ‘driving without awareness’ is not a scientific term but a provisional one. There are two essential components to the act of driving: collision avoidance and steering within highway lines. In a state of driving without awareness, the driver’s capacity to collision ceases to exist.
  • This condition can occur without the driver being aware of this happening, but they would ‘snap out’ of the condition in response to major stimuli appearing in front of them. The expert witness was unable to say why this had not occurred in the present case when D had seen the lights a quarter mile before.
  • The expert witness agreed that D would still be controlling the vehicle and the state of unawareness was not total.
  • “Mr. Jones submits that automatism as a defence in a driving case arises only where there is such total destruction of voluntary control that the defendant cannot be said to be driving at all. He cited Hill v Baxter [1958] 1 Q.B. 277 in which Lord Goddard C.J. said:
  • ‘I agree that there may be cases where the circumstances are such that the accused could not really be said to be driving at all. Suppose he had a stroke or an epileptic fit, both instances of what may properly be called acts of God; he might well be in the driver’s seat even with his hands on the wheel, but in such a state of unconsciousness that he could not be said to be driving’” [102E].
  • Examples of situations where automatism could apply were where a driver at the wheel suffers an epileptic fit, a coma, a blow on the head from a stone thrown up from the highway and an attack by a swarm of bees.
  • As such, the proper evidential foundation was not laid by the expert evidence of driving without awareness. All authorities show that the defence of automatism requires total destruction of voluntary control on D’s part. The expert witness agreed that D would retain enough control to steer and react when confronted by significant stimuli, which would normally return him to full awareness. Therefore, the question of automatism should not have been directed to the jury.

Significance of the Case on the Development of the Law

The decision in Attorney General’s Reference (No. 2 of 1992) profoundly impacted the understanding and application of the automatism defence in UK law:

  1. Redefinition of Automatism: The ruling emphasized that automatism requires a complete loss of voluntary control, distinguishing it from states where control is merely impaired. This case serves as a cornerstone for understanding the strict thresholds for claiming automatism.
  2. Influence on Subsequent Cases: Subsequent cases such as R v T [1996] where the court considered the impact of post-traumatic stress on automatism, and R v Burgess [1991] which dealt with automatism induced by sleepwalking, have relied on the principles established in this case to assess the complete loss of control required for a successful defence.
  3. Clarification in Legal Texts and Guidelines: The case has also influenced legal texts and judicial guidelines on the application of the automatism defence, ensuring a stricter interpretation and application in scenarios involving complex behaviours like ‘driving without awareness’. It is often referenced in discussions about the borderline between non-insane automatism and insane automatism.

Exam Questions and Answers

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

How has the interpretation of ‘total loss of control’ evolved in recent UK case law regarding automatism?

In recent UK case law, the threshold for proving ‘total loss of control’ has remained stringent. The case of R v Charlson [2003] reinforced this by emphasizing that automatism requires evidence of an external trigger causing involuntary actions. Additionally, in R v Quick [1973], the court differentiated between insulin-induced hypoglycemia (external) and conditions stemming from personality disorders (internal), highlighting that only the former could justify automatism.

What are the challenges in proving automatism in court as a viable defence, especially in cases involving complex psychological conditions?

Proving automatism involves demonstrating that a defendant’s actions were involuntary and had an external cause, which can be particularly challenging with psychological conditions. The case of R v Lipman [1970], where the defendant’s voluntary drug intake precluded an automatism defense, illustrates the difficulty of separating induced psychological states from innate mental conditions, which courts typically do not accept under automatism.

How do medical advancements influence the legal understanding and acceptance of automatism as a defence?

Medical advancements have led to greater scrutiny and a nuanced understanding of conditions that might lead to automatism. The evolution of neuroscience and psychology provides courts with tools to better assess claims of automatism. For instance, advanced imaging can demonstrate brain activity that substantiates claims of involuntary action, as explored in debates following R v Hennessy [1989], where diabetes-induced hypoglycemia was central to the defense argument. This helps in distinguishing genuine cases of automatism from those involving conscious control.