R v Hennessy – 1989

April 15, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to R v Hennessy – 1989

The criminal justice system grapples with complex issues when a defendant’s actions seem involuntary due to a medical condition. R v Hennessy (1989) stands as a significant case in English law, delving into the boundaries of the defense of automatism in the context of diabetic hypoglycemia. This case study examines the factual background, the legal issue at stake, the court’s decision and reasoning, and the lasting impact of the case on the understanding of automatism and its limitations.

Factual Background

Andrew Michael Hennessy found himself in police custody after being apprehended driving a stolen car. His erratic behavior at the station quickly escalated into a medical emergency. It became evident that Mr. Hennessy was suffering from a severe diabetic episode. Further investigation revealed he had neglected to take his insulin for several days, likely due to emotional distress. Facing criminal charges for driving a stolen vehicle, Mr. Hennessy mounted a legal defense centered on the concept of automatism, arguing that his diabetic condition rendered him unconscious of his actions at the time of the offense.

The Legal Question: Automatism as a Defense

The central legal question in R v Hennessy revolved around the applicability of automatism in this specific scenario:

  • Did Mr. Hennessy’s diabetic hypoglycemia, caused by his own failure to take insulin, constitute a state of automatism that negated his criminal liability for driving the stolen car?

The Court’s Decision and Reasoning:

Distinguishing Between Internal and External Triggers

The court ruled against Mr. Hennessy, rejecting his claim of automatism. The court’s reasoning hinged on differentiating between two categories of automatism:

  • External Automatism: This type of automatism arises from uncontrollable external factors beyond the defendant’s control, such as a sudden epileptic seizure or a blow to the head.
  • Internal Automatism: This type of automatism stems from a pre-existing internal condition, like a disease or self-induced intoxication.

The court held that Mr. Hennessy’s case fell under the purview of internal automatism caused by his own failure to take medication. This, according to the court, did not absolve him of criminal responsibility. In making this distinction, the court relied on the precedent set in R v Quick (1973). However, unlike R v Quick, where the defendant’s diabetic episode resulted from a combination of medication and insufficient food intake (external factors), Mr. Hennessy’s episode was deemed self-induced due to his neglect of medication.

Significance and Lasting Impact

R v Hennessy has been a significant but controversial case in relation to the defense of automatism:

  • Clarifying the Internal vs. External Automatism Distinction: The case established a clearer legal distinction between external and internal automatism for the defense of automatism. Internal automatism caused by a pre-existing condition, even if triggered by external factors (like emotional distress in this instance), generally does not absolve the defendant of liability.
  • Continuing Debate and Potential for Change: The decision has faced criticism for placing a harsh burden on diabetics and others with similar conditions who experience involuntary episodes due to their health. Subsequent cases, such as R v T (1990), have shown a more nuanced approach, recognizing automatism in cases of internal conditions where the defendant could not have foreseen or prevented the episode. This demonstrates a potential softening of the strict approach established in R v Hennessy.

Conclusion

R v Hennessy remains a crucial case in understanding the defense of automatism. While it provided a clearer definition of internal and external causes, it also sparked debate regarding the fairness of denying the defense to those with pre-existing conditions. The case ultimately paves the way for further legal discussion and potential refinements in the application of automatism in criminal cases, particularly as it relates to situations involving involuntary episodes stemming from medical conditions.

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