Brief of R v Malcherek and Steel

Brief of R v Malcherek and Steel by Legum

R v. Malcherek and Steel [1981] 2 All ER 422

Material Facts:

This is a consolidated case involving Malcherek and Steel. Malcherek stabbed his wife in the abdomen, causing her to collapse. At some point during her treatment, her heart stopped beating for thirty minutes, and this caused her brain damage. She was consequently placed on life support. However, the life support machines were disconnected as there was no possibility or chance of her condition improving.

Similarly, Steel attacked a girl and caused her head injuries. The victim of his attack was also taken to the hospital and put on life support. However, her brain stopped braining working and she was taken off life support.

The two were charged with murder. The trial judge withdrew the question of causation from the jury because, to him, it appeared clear that Malcherek and Steel had caused the deaths of their victims. The two appealed against this decision by the trial judge.


Whether or not the appellants caused the deaths of their victims, given that the victims only died when the doctors disconnected the life support machines,

Arguments of the Appellants:

That the doctors acts of withdrawing the victims from life support constituted a new intervening act that broke the chain of causation, thereby making them not liable for causing death.


The appellants caused the deaths of their victims.

Ratio Decidendi:

The court of appeal held that at the time of death, the original injuries inflicted by the appellants on their victims were still the operative and substantial cause of death, not the fact that they were withdrawn from the life support machines. The court also stated that the test of death was whether or not the brain had stopped working. At the time the victims were withdrawn from life support, their brains had stopped working, and they were thus already dead.

Per Lord Lane CJ:

Where a medical practitioner adopting methods which are generally accepted comes bona fide and conscientiously to the conclusion that the patient is for practical purposes dead, and that such vital functions as exist — for example, circulation — are being maintained solely by mechanical means, and therefore discontinues treatment, that does not prevent the person who inflicted the initial injury from being responsible for the victim’s death


The withdrawal of life support in this case did not act as a novus actus interveniens (new intervening act) to break the chain of causation.