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Intent to commit murder

By  |  22.10.2015

Would you please let us know whether, in English law, the intent to murder, though it may be present in a person's mind for a fleeting second or more, if that person has a change of mind or begin to cool off during the course of their actions, does the intent become cancelled?

In a case recently decided by the Court of Appeal, the old chestnut of intent once again fell to be considered. R v Styles [2015] EWCA Crim 1619.
One of the grounds of appeal in respect of the offence of being in possession of a firearm with intent to commit an indictable offence (in this case murder – section 18(1) of the Firearms Act 1968) arose out of the handling of a question from the jury as follows:

Would you please let us know whether, in English law, the intent to murder, though it may be present in a person’s mind for a fleeting second or more, if that person has a change of mind or begin to cool off during the course of their actions, does the intent become cancelled?

The case centred around a domestic dispute, the evidence in respect of which included text messages and some witness testimony as to the state of mind of the appellant on the night of his arrest. The appellant was found, close to where his supposed love rival lived, in possession of a loaded shotgun. He denied during the trial that he had intended to murder his alleged target stating instead that he had intended to commit suicide.  He also stated that he did not know that the intended target lived in the area where he was stopped and arrested by the police.

The prosecution case was that the appellant had planned to murder his intended target and that this intention was well established and not fleeting.

The appellant argued before the court of appeal that the jury had been misdirected by the trial Judge on the basis that following the question from the jury above, he did not expressly prohibit the jury from convicting on the basis of a fleeting intent.

English law has discouraged attempts in the past to define the concept of intent over and above the everyday meaning of the word that we all understand. This case has proved no exception. The court of appeal rejected the submission that the failure to rule out fleeting intent was a misdirection.

When one considers the direction given fully, whilst it did not appear to limit the ambit of the decision to that of the prosecution version of events solely, it did appear to encourage a proper consideration of all of the background factors that could feed into the decision. The direction also reminded the jury that it was the prosecution case that the intent to murder was present during the entirety of the walk the appellant took between his home and the site of his arrest.

It is arguable perhaps, that had the direction not been so mindful of the background facts, that this ground of appeal may have had more traction. Although the final line in paragraph 32 of the judgment reproduced below would probably have meant that the long established reluctance to define or limit the meaning of intent would have prevailed.

Para 31 The short point taken on this ground of appeal, we repeat, is that the judge, in the final direction he gave to the jury, left open the possibility that the defendant could be convicted on the basis of a “fleeting intention“, which did not reflect the prosecution’s case. It is submitted that the conviction is unsafe as a result.

Para 32 We disagree. The direction the judge gave to the jury was correct in law. The offence was committed if the appellant, with the gun in his possession, intended to commit murder within the timeframe of the indictment (viz. at any stage on 5 December 2013). Having provided the jury, in that sense, with the legally correct definition of intent, the judge immediately put the direction into its true context, namely that the Crown alleged that he had the gun with him in order to commit murder throughout the journey from Haywards Heath to Burgess Hill. The jury were, accordingly, asked to apply the correct definition of the offence as regards intention against the background of the true issues in the case. In our judgment this was a wholly correct approach. It would have been wrong for the judge to limit the circumstances in which the jury could convict by requiring them to be sure that the appellant had held the requisite intention for the entirety of the walk between the two locations. They were instead entitled to convict on a lesser basis, namely if they were sure he possessed the gun with murderous intent on 5 December 2013, albeit they needed to assess this issue against the backdrop of the respective cases of the prosecution and the defence.

There were other grounds of appeal, including a complaint about a failure to give a modified or qualified good character direction. Whilst it was acknowledged that such a direction should have been given, and that there had been a misdirection as to how to consider the appellants antecedents, the court found that this did not render the convictions unsafe.

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