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Motive is synonymous with intention


One of the aims of criminal law is to punish ‘morally responsible’ wrongdoers. To do so, the state of mind (mens rea) of these at the time of the offence must be examined since the existence of a prohibited act (actus rea) is not enough to prove guilt. The examination of the mens rea allows to decide whether or not they intended to bring about the consequences. If proved, the defendant will be found guilty regardless of his good or bad motives ‘a man shot and killed his aunt with the motive of benefiting under her will, the immediate intent, which makes the act murder, is the intention or desire to kill, while the further intent or motive, which forms no part of the definition of murder, is the intention or desire to benefit under her will’1. This statement highlights the distinction between intention and motives as well as the irrelevance of motives in criminal law. Nevertheless, in certain cases such as R. Steane [1947] K.B. 997 the defendant’ s good motive allowed him to escape criminal liability.

The question raised here is the true meaning of intention and the reasons of its confusion with motive. To answer to this question, let’s first examine the meanings of ‘intention’ to see whether similarities exist with motives. Second, we will look at the application of intention especially in murder cases to see whether or not judges and jury confuse intention and motives in their decisions.

Motive and intention differ in the role they play in criminal law especially for the determination of criminal liability. Generally, while an offence (actus reus) has been committed, the prosecutor has to examine the state of mind (mens rea) of the accused at the time of the offence. In many offences, the mens rea required is that of intention to cause the prohibited act such as in murder cases. In its current meaning, intention is defined as ‘act of wanting or planning to do something’. But in English law, it refers to two views enumerated by the Law Commission2 ‘a person acts intentionally with the respect to a result when (1) it is his purpose to cause it (direct intent) or (2) although it is not his purpose to cause it, he knows that it would occur in the ordinary course of events (oblique intention). If proved, the accused will be found guilty. In the other hand, motive does not play an important role in criminal law, it is usually used in defence to justify accused’ s act and if possible, obtain a reduce sentence. It is defined as ‘factor or circumstance that induce a person to act in a certain way’. In simple terms, it refers to good or bad reasons behind the accused’ s act but in law, it is irrelevant to determine the accused’ s intention. In Smith [1960] 1 All ER 256, CCA, D was charged with corruptly offering a gift to the mayor to induce him to use his influence to secure the sale of flats. Judges refused to take into account the defendant’ s motive (expose corruption). The reason behind this is that motive is different from ulterior intent, it is ulterior to the definition of the offence. Also, legal judgment based on motive would lead to moral judgment, which is not acceptable since law is different from moral.

Moral is based on examination of ‘goodness or badness of human character or behaviour’ whereas law is based on ‘rules enacted or customary in a community and recognized as enjoining or prohibiting certain actions and enforced by the imposition of penalties’. We cannot argue that they have similarities since a high number of legal rules can coincide with moral values but still, not all comportments condemn by moral are criminal offences. Also, apart from animals, small children and insane, the law considers that each individual is responsible for his act and should face the consequences of his fault regardless of his excuses. The idea is that law needs to fulfil its roles. Ashworth3 refers to the danger of legal moral judgment by referring to the case of James Bulger’ s killers. He felt that moral has stopped the court from playing his role. The conviction of the defendants was only based on moral judgment. A deeper analysis would have allowed to examine the circumstances (social, educational and familial) to understand as to why the crime happened and maybe prevented it from occurring again. However, it must be argued that, in some cases like the Bulger’ s case for instance in which the offence committed was abhorrent, judges may be tempted to reach a moral judgment but they try to avoid it as much as possible since it could lead to political debate as in Chandler v DPP [1962] 3 All ER 314 in which the defendants were protesting against nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, if judges share the view that motive cannot be taken as a sole element to determine the intention of defendants, they feel that the circumstances around cases must be examined to make their decisions (the intention with which a man did something can usually be determined by a jury only by inference from the surrounding circumstances – Donovan J., in D.P.P. v. Smith [1961] A.C. 290) and motive is an integral part of that. Wasik8 even goes further by stating that both could almost be confused (judiciary have re-emphasised the traditional irrelevance of motive; but in some more recent murder cases ... have found distinctions more difficult to make). In R v. Steane [1947] K.B. 997, motive has allowed acquittal of the accused since they highlighted the moral gap between what Steane did (help the enemy) and his purpose (save his family). This rendered his act more acceptable morally since it was purely based on his desire to save his family. Otherwise, in R v. Woolin [1998] 3 WLR 382 it was held that the judge should have directed the jury that ‘they were entitled to find the necessary intention if they felt sure that death or serious bodily harm had been a virtual certainty as a result of the defendant’s actions’. It was also said that the decision must be reached after considering all of the evidence. The defendant had no motive to kill his child, which leaded to a more lenient conviction. In Steane and Woolin as well as few others cases the decisions reached have been criticised since many commentators felt that the accused had the mens rea for the offence and should have been found guilty. The judges and the jury were accused of being too lenient because the accused had good motives to justify their acts (or no motive at all in R. v. Moloney [1985] 1 AC 905).

Nevertheless, in no occasion, judges have openly stated that they examined the defendant’s motives to determine whether or not he intended to cause the offence because it would have been contrary to the traditional idea that motive is irrelevant. The judges had to refer to other stratagems. The most ‘famous’ one is the use of oblique intention instead of direct intention in cases with moral issues since the meaning of direct intention corresponds to the current meaning of intention ‘aiming for’ and it does not allow any consideration of other elements and above all, any form of discretionary decisions. By contrast, ‘oblique intention’ is really different from direct intention not only because it has always generated oppositions between commentators such as Williams4, Norrie5 and Duff6, but also because it is easily malleable. In cases in which oblique intention is used, jury has to consider whether or not the defendant intended the unwanted consequences resulting from the achievement of his ultimate aim. They are helped in their task by judges, who will give them a definition of intention only in complicated cases or if they request one. Otherwise the current meaning would be referred to. Let’s see below how the application of oblique intention in junction with judges’ imput (direction) leaded to negation or intensification of the meaning of intention to obtain moral judgments.

In Hyam v. D.P.P [1975] A.C. 55 Mrs Hyam’ s lover was living with Mrs Booth and she was jealous. To scare her away from the neighbourhood, Mrs Hyam poured petrol through the letterbox. As a consequence, Mrs Booth’s two daughters perished. The direction given by Ackner J. was that the jury could find intention if the accused ‘knew that it was highly probable that this would cause death or serious bodily harm to Mrs Booth’. Plus, they were told that it mattered not if her motive was to frighten Mrs. Booth. Mrs Hyam’ s counsel held that this statement had stopped jury from accepting the defence by telling them that ‘her motive did not matter he was effectively saying them that her defence did not matter’. By referring to ‘highly probable’, the jury found intention since ‘the higher is the probability the more possible it is to find that the defendant foresaw it’3. Here, the meaning of intention was narrowed to allow conviction, which coincided with opinions made by certain judges such as Lord Kilbrandon (the present case could form an excellent exhibiting as it does ... a degree of cold blooded cruelty exceeding that to be found in many impulsive crime) or Lord Bridge (no reasonable jury could have failed to convict) since in view of elements of case she seems to have perfectly planned her crime (she made sure that her lover was not at home and did not alarm anyone).

By contrast, in R. v. Nedrick [1986] 1 W.L.R. 1025 the defendant had a grudge against a woman, he poured paraffin in her letterbox and as a result one of her children died. On the first instance, the jury were directed as ‘if when the defendant set fire to the house he knew that it was highly probable that that his act would result in serious bodily injury to someone in the house, even if he did not desire to bring about the result, he was guilty of murder’. The defendant was found guilty of murder. He appealed against his conviction on the ground of misdirection of judge and his conviction was squashed. The verdict was substituted with manslaughter. On appeal, the judge held that the right direction was to examine ‘the

probability of consequences and whether the defendant foresaw that consequence’. The direction of ‘foresight of consequences’ give by the judge on the first instance was considered as wrong since foresight is completely different from intention (foresight of consequences belongs not the substantive law, but the law of evidence – Lord Bridge) because it does not allow jury to look at circumstances around the cases (jury must pay regard to all relevant circumstances including what the defendant himself did and said). This direction illustrates the desire of the courts to have a more opened approach towards intention while moral issues. The circumstances have been examined and intention has been narrowed down to allow motive to play a part (narrowing intention involves straining the definition of intent in order to give effect to an excusatory defence) by contrast with Hyam, in which the direction of ‘highly probable’ was criticised because the meaning of intention was broadened. Duff particularly disagrees with decision ‘murder requires an intention to cause death or injury, and no such intention is revealed by Mrs Hyam – not that such consequences were virtually certain, people often escape fire without injury’. This allows to note that since Hyam, the direction given to intention has moved forward – moral certainty to virtual certainty, the latter constitutes at present the correct direction. Such changes reflect a general move of murderous intention from strict moral judgments (Mrs Hyam was found guilty because her act was vile and morally condemnable) to more opened judgments (despite the fact that Mr Nedrick was motivated by the hate of his victim, the judges and the jury examined the circumstances of the case and what he said before making their decision) and such an openness was welcomed by commentators such as Smith11.

To conclude, it can be said that with regard to the cases examined above we can say that motive is part of the elements examined by judges and jury to reach a decision since it allows them to have a complete picture of the events. However, it can be argued that motive is really synonymous with intention since intention seems to be opened to many interpretations. William Wilson in particular refers to the problem raised by the definition of intention ‘


1.   Wasik, M., ‘Mens Rea, Motive, and the Problem of "Dishonesty" in the Law of Theft’ [1979] Crim L.R. 543

2.   Law Commission (Law Com. No. 177), A Criminal Code for England and Wales, Commentary on Draft Criminal Code Bill, 8.14-8.16

3.   Ashworth, A "Reforming the law of Murder" 104 Law Quarterly Review

4.   Williams, G (1987) "Oblique intention" Cambridge Law Journal Vol. 46(3) pp. 417-438

5.   Norrie, A: ‘After Woolin’ [1999] Crim. L.R. pp. 532-544

6.   Duff, R.A: "The obscure intentions of the House of Lords", [1986] Crim. L .R. 771-781

7.   C. M. V. Clarkson: Criminal Law: Text and Materials (4th Ed. 1998, Sweet & Maxwell Ltd) pp. 131-154

8.   Michael J.: Textbook on Criminal Law (6th Ed. 2001, Blackstone Press) pp. 49-72

9.   Williams, G., Textbook of Criminal Law, 2nd Edn, London; Stevens 1983 p.75

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