March 04, 2024
Micheal James

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R v Woollin (1999) is a landmark case in English criminal law that significantly redefined the concept of “intention” for the purposes of murder. The case revolved around the question of whether foresight of a virtual certainty of death, even without a direct desire for it, could constitute murder.


Robert Woollin was convicted of murdering his infant son by throwing him against a wall, causing fatal injuries. During the trial, evidence showed that Woollin knew the act was incredibly dangerous and could likely result in the child’s death. However, he claimed he never intended to kill his son.

Procedural History

The jury at the initial trial found Woollin guilty of murder based on the judge’s instructions that foresight of a substantial risk of death could amount to intention. Woollin appealed the conviction, arguing that the judge’s interpretation of intent was incorrect. The Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, but the House of Lords allowed a further appeal.


The prosecution argued that Woollin’s awareness of the almost certain consequence of his actions constituted sufficient evidence of intent for murder. They relied on the existing “substantial risk” test and emphasized the dangerous nature of Woollin’s act.

The defense countered that merely foreseeing a risk of death was not enough to prove intent. They argued that a specific desire to kill was essential for murder and that Woollin lacked such desire. They also questioned the clarity of the “substantial risk” test and its potential to blur the lines between murder and manslaughter.

Legal Analysis

The House of Lords overturned Woollin’s murder conviction and substituted it for manslaughter. Lord Steyn, delivering the majority judgment, established the “Woollin test” for oblique intention. The court held that to prove murder, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant:

  • Knew that his or her actions would cause death, or were virtually certain to do so; and
  • Intended to cause the result, or was reckless as to whether it occurred.

The court emphasized that simply foreseeing a substantial risk of death was not enough to satisfy the intent requirement. Recklessness, while sufficient for manslaughter, could not be equated with intention for murder.

Impact and Implications

R v Woollin has had a profound impact on English law. The Woollin test provides a clear and concise framework for determining oblique intention in murder cases. It has been applied in numerous subsequent cases and has helped to maintain a clear distinction between murder and manslaughter. However, the case has also been criticized for potentially creating uncertainty in borderline cases and for potentially hindering prosecutions in some instances.


R v Woollin remains a pivotal case in English criminal law, offering a nuanced understanding of intention for murder. The Woollin test continues to guide legal practice and serves as a crucial reference point for ongoing debates about mens rea and culpability in criminal justice.

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