October 4, 2022

Case Note- Director of Public Prosecutions V. Beard, [1920] A.C. 479

This case is considered an important case in the arena of the relationship between drunkenness and mens rea.

But, before discussing this case, it is relevant here to mention the details of another case Rex v. Meade which had an effect on this case.

Rex v. Meade[1]

In the case, the question was whether there was any misdirection in his summing, up by Lord Coleridge, J. The summing up was in these words:

“In the first place, everyone is presumed to know the consequences of his acts. If he be insane, that knowledge is not presumed. Insanity is not pleaded here, but where it is part of the essence of a crime that a motive, a particular motive, shall exist in the mind of the man who does the act, the law declares this-that if the mind at that time is so obscured by drink, if the reason is dethroned and the man is incapable therefore of forming that intent, it justifies the reduction of the charge from murder to manslaughter”.

Darling, J., delivering the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeal affirmed the correctness of the summing up but stated the rule in his own words as follows:

“A man is taken to intend the natural consequences of his acts. This presumption may be rebutted in the case of a sober man, in many, it may also be rebutted in the case of a man who is drunk, by shewing his mind to have been so affected by the drink he had taken that he was incapable of knowing that what he was doing was dangerous, i.e., likely to inflict serious injury. If this be proved, the presumption that he intended to do grievous bodily harm is rebutted”.

Director of Public Prosecutions V. Beard

In Director of Public Prosecutions v. Beard[2] a prisoner ravished a girl of 13 years of age, and in aid of the act of rape he placed his hand upon her mouth to stop her from screaming, at the same time pressing his thumb upon her throat with the result that she died of suffocation. Drunkenness was pleaded as a defence.

Bailhache J. directed the jury that the defence of drunkenness could only prevail if the accused by reason of it did not know what he was doing or did not know that he was doing wrong. The jury brought in a verdict of murder and the man was sentenced to death.

The Court of Criminal Appeal (Earl of Reading C.J., Lord Coleridge J., and Sankey, J.) quashed this conviction on the ground of misdirection following Rex v. Meade which established that the presumption that a man intended the natural consequences of his acts might be rebutted in the case of drunkenness by showing that his mind was so affected by the drink that he had taken that he was incapable of knowing that what he was doing was dangerous. The conviction was, therefore, reduced to manslaughter.

The Crown preferred the appeal to the House of Lords and it was heard by a strong Bench consisting of Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead, Earl of Reading, C.J., Viscount Haldane, Lord Denedin, Lord Atkinson, Lord Sumner, Lord Buckmaster, and Lord Phillimore.

The Lord Chancellor delivered the judgment of the court. He examined the earlier authorities in a lengthy judgment and reached the conclusion that Rex v. Meade(supra) stated the law rather too broadly, though on the facts there proved the decision was right.

The position “that a person charged with a crime of violence may show, in order to rebut the presumption that he intended the natural consequences of his acts, that he was so drunk that he was incapable of knowing what he was doing was dangerous……………………………. which is what is said in Meade’s case, was not correct as a general proposition of law and their Lordships laid down three rules:

(1) That insanity, whether produced by drunkenness or otherwise, is a defence to the crime charged;

(2) That evidence of drunkenness which renders the accused incapable of forming the specific intent essential to constitute the crime should be taken into consideration with the other facts proved in order to determine whether or not he had this intent;

(3) That evidence of drunkenness falling short of a proved incapacity in the accused to form the intent necessary to constitute the crime, and merely establishing that his mind was affected by drink so that he more readily gave way to some violent passion, does not rebut the presumption that a man intends the natural consequences of his acts.

The result of the authorities is summarised neatly and compendiously at page 63 of Russel on Crime, tenth edition, in the following words:

“There is a distinction, however, between the defence of insanity in the true sense caused by excessive drunkenness and the defence of drunkenness which produces a condition such that the drunken man’s mind becomes incapable of forming a specific intention. If actual insanity in fact supervenes as the result of alcoholic excess, it furnishes as complete an answer to a criminal charge as insanity induced by any other cause.

But in cases falling short of insanity evidence of drunkenness which renders the accused incapable of forming the specific intent essential to constitute the crime should be taken into consideration with the other facts proved in order to determine whether or not he had this intent, but evidence of drunkenness which falls short of proving such incapacity and merely establishes that the mind of the accused was so affected by drink that he more readily gave way to some violent passion does not rebut the presumption that a man intends the natural consequences of his act”.

REFERENCE

Basdev vs The State of Pepsu, 1956 AIR 488, 1956 SCR 363

 


[1] [1909] 1 K.B. 895,

[2] [1920] A.C. 479.