• In the case of Hyam v DPP [1975] AC 55, a person would have the required mens rea for murder where they had knowingly committed an act which was aimed at another, with the intention of causing death or serious injury.

Facts of Hyam v DPP [1975] AC 55

  • The D was in a relationship with a man who then become engaged to another
  • The D went to the fiancée’s home and poured petrol through the letterbox followed by a lit newspaper
  • The fiancée was able to get out however her two daughters suffocated, and the D was charged with their murders
  • D argued she set fire to the house to merely scare the new woman into leaving the area
  • The trial judge directed the jury to convict the D if the prosecution were able to prove beyond reasonable doubt the D’s intention to seriously harm or kill;
  • If they were satisfied she knew it was a highly probable consequence that the fire would cause serious harm or death she shall be convicted, her motive of frightening would not matter
  • D was convicted of murder, the Court of Appeal dismissed her appeal against the conviction, so she appealed to the House of Lords

Issues in Hyam v DPP [1975] AC 55

  • D stated her intention was to frighten, not to cause serious harm or murder – is this sufficient enough to convict her of the murder of the 2 children, or was the trial judge incorrect in their direction to the jury?

Held by the House of Lords

  • Appeal dismissed by a majority of 3 to 2 – the D’s conviction was upheld as it was aimed at another with the intention of serious harm at the least; it was highly probable at least serious harm would occur from her actions and she should have recognised this.

Lord Hailsham

Believing there was serious risk of the consequences, Lord Hailsham dismissed the appeal:

  • “there is not merely actual foresight of the probable consequences, but actual intention to expose his victim to the risk of those consequences whether they in fact occur or not.” [76]
  • “she was actually and subjectively aware of the danger to the sleeping occupants of the house in what she did, and that was the point which the judge brought to the jury’s attention, it must surely follow naturally that she did what she did with the intention of exposing them to the danger of death or really serious injury regardless of whether such consequences actually ensued or not. Obviously in theory, a further logical step is involved after actual foresight of the probability of danger is established. But in practice and in the context of this case the step is not one which, given the facts, can be seriously debated” [78]

Viscount Dilhorne

As the consequences were ‘highly probable’, Viscount Dilhorne dismissed the appeal

  • “If he does it deliberately and intentionally, knowing when he does it that it is highly probable that grievous bodily harm will result, I think most people would say and be justified in saying that whatever other intentions he may have had as well, he at least intended grievous bodily harm.” [83]

Lord Cross

Dismissing the appeal, Lord Cross believed a test of probability would suffice, there was no need for the probability to be high

  • “the only criticism which can be directed against Ackner J.’s summing up is that by the insertion of the word “highly” before “probable” it was unduly favourable to Mrs. Hyam” [97]

Lord Diplock dissenting

Lord Diplock was of the belief that the murder verdict should be substituted for one of manslaughter due to the D’s intention to invoke fear and no more, in accordance with the law on homicide

  • “Since the first Commissioners on the Criminal Law issued their Fourth Report in 1839, it has been the uniform view of those who have assumed or been charged with the task of codifying the law of homicide that the relevant intention on a charge of murder should be an intention to kill or to cause any bodily injury which is known to the offender to be likely to endanger life.” [92]

Editorial comment

As there were three separate ways the appeal was dismissed, the later case of R v Woollin [1999] established the correct test would be one of ‘virtual certainty’ as to the foresight of the D.