To what extent is the criminal law in England and Wales clear as to when intoxication can be a defence? Should it be clearer?
For hundreds of years, it has been assumed that individuals behave more aggressively while under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol related crimes cost the UK taxpayer £1.8 billion on average per year . However, society has taken an ambivalent attitude towards intoxication. Alcohol consumption is generally depicted as a puritanical moral barrier used to escape pain and the harsh realities of life. Intoxication can conversely be portrayed as a sign of weakness, impeding human reasoning leading individuals to behave in an unacceptable manner. Does this lack of consistency in society’s opinion reflect the clarity of the law as regards to when intoxication can be a defence?
Drunkenness was a crime punishable by imprisonment in the form of stocks or a fine from 1607 to 1828. The law in this area concentrates on whether the accused who committed the prohibited act, has the necessary mens rea due to voluntary or involuntary intoxication. There are two extreme approaches that the law could follow on intoxication; the strict subjective theory emphasizes the defendant lacked the required mens rea and supports the idea of absolute acquittal from liability. The absolutist policy theory highlights the importance of public protection and endorses punishment.
This arena consisting of the two aforementioned principles have created a tangled web that leaves numerous questions unanswered. The law has tried to achieve an intermediate compromise, rejecting both theorems in favor of adopting different strategies for each criminal offence. An initial distinction has to be drawn between being drunk and being intoxicated. It was expressed in R v Sheehan and Moore that ‘a drunken intent is nevertheless an intent.’ A drunken individual would not be able to use the defence of intoxication, as he is still capable of forming the necessary mens rea. The case of R v Stubbs stated that intoxication needed to be ‘very extreme’ as it is impossible to form the mens rea due to the effect of copious amounts of alcohol. This essay will investigate the situations when intoxication can be used as a defence, analyzing the decision in R v Majewski and its impact on the specific and basic intent dichotomy. The Law Commission has taken a ‘stripped-down approach’ attempting to codify the main principles of the common law regarding voluntary and involuntary intoxication. There is an opinion that ‘there is much in the Report to commend it’ but others have drawn attention to the production of ‘head scratching provisions’ leading some to question whether intoxication should be called a defence at all. The Scottish Law Commission have recognized the difficulty in reforming the law and have stated ‘intoxication as a complete defence in all circumstances would be extremely serious.’ To what extent is intoxication used as a defence in criminal law and should the legal boundaries be clearer?
Voluntary intoxication is defined in the Butler Committee Report as ‘the intentional taking of drink or a drug knowing that it is capable in sufficient quantity of having an intoxicating effect.’ In reality, the law does not support the stringency of this explanation. The main rationale is that the intoxicant must be able to impair the defendant’s rationality and human reasoning abilities. In the case of R v Hardie, the question of whether valium could be classed as an intoxicant arose. The defence was that the valium was only administered for relaxant purposes and according to Lord Parker, ‘there was no evidence that it was known that the appellant could render a person aggressive.’ Does this mean the court has to decide whether a substance is an intoxicant individually for each case? The Law Commission believes this approach is overall inadequate. The law in England and Wales...
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