Brief of R v. Woollin

Brief of R v. Woollin by Legum

R v. Woollin [1999] AC 82

Material Facts:

The appellant lost his temper and threw his three-month-old baby on a hard surface, causing the baby to suffer a fractured skull and eventually die.

At the trial court, the prosecution did not contend that the appellant intended to kill his son. However, the trial judge directed the jury to find the appellant guilty of murder if they are convinced that he must have realised and appreciated that "when he threw that child, that there was a substantial risk that he would cause serious injury to it , then it would be open to you to find that he intended to cause injury to the child and you should convict him of murder." The appellant was convicted of murder, and he appealed to the Court of Appeal, then to the House of Lords.


Whether or not the direction given to the jury by the trial judge was a misdirection

Arguments of the Appellant:

  1. The appellant contended that the trial judge’s reference to substantial risk widened the definition of murder, and that the judge should have rather directed the jury to find the appellant guilty if they believed he knew that his acts were virtually certain to cause the death of the baby.
  2. That a direction posing an issue as to appreciation of a "substantial risk" of causing serious injury is wider than a direction framed in terms of appreciation of a "virtual certainty
  3. That when he threw the child, he did not think about the consequences at all. That he therefore had no intention to cause serious harm to the child or cause its death.

Arguments of the Crown:

  1. That the case of R v Nedrick being relied on by the appellant was wrongly decided.
  2. That even if it was properly decided, it did not apply to the present case.


There was a misdirection

Ratio Decidendi:

Lord Styne commented on the direction given to the jury in R v. Nedrick and noted that "the effect of the critical direction is that a result foreseen as virtually certain is an intended result ."His lordship further held that

It follows that judge should not have departed from the Nedrick direction. By using the phrase "substantial risk" the judge blurred the line between intention and recklessness, and hence between murder and manslaughter.

...Moreover, over a period of twelve years since Nedrick the test of foresight of virtual certainty has apparently caused no practical difficulties

... In my view Lord Lane's judgment in Nedrick provided valuable assistance to trial judges. The model direction is by now a tried-and-tested formula. Trial judges ought to continue to use it.


The virtual certainty test is used to assess indirect or oblique intent. If a person does an act with no direct intention to bring about a particular outcome, he would be held to have intended to bring about the outcome if his acts were such that he should have known that they are virtually certain to bring about the outcome.