Types of General criminal Defence in UK Law

When a person is accused of a crime, the onus is on the prosecution to prove that the individual committed the crime with intent; general defences can be mounted by the defence team to combat the prosecution's contention that the accused individual had intent. General defences are specific to the crimes and occur in specific circumstances. General defences should be considered in every case.

General Defences Include:

  • Automatism
  • Intoxication
  • Mistake
  • Insanity
  • Duress and necessity
  • Self defence
  • The defence of others and/or property


The defence of automatism can be mounted in cases where an individual committed a crime without having full control over their mind. An automatism defence can also be mounted in cases where the individual was not conscious at the time of the crime. For a defence of automatism to be successful, it must be proven that the defendant suffered a total loss of voluntary control over their behaviour at the time of the crime. If the defendant retains some control, even if the control is impaired, reduced, or partial, the defence cannot be mounted.

The defence is also limited if the individual's automatism is caused by a disease; by alcohol or drug intoxication; or by any other self-induced means, such as failing to eat when taking insulin.

In a court case, the defence will be considered by a jury; if the jury cannot be convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the defence of automatism has been fully disproved by the prosecution, then the defendant should be acquitted.


Crimes committed during intoxication occur frequently, and this defence can, in some cases, be mounted to prove that the individual charged did not have the mental capacity necessary in order to carry out the crime, or understand the implications of it. The defence is more successful in cases of involuntary intoxication, where the accused became involuntarily intoxicated, perhaps as a result of having their drink spiked.

In cases of voluntary intoxication, it may be possible to argue that the individual, because of their intoxication, did not have the capacity required to commit an offence, and can therefore be used to secure an acquittal. Voluntary intoxication cannot be used as a defence in cases where the individual has committed the crime.

A lack of intent, caused by intoxication, may reduce crimes; for example, it may see a charge of murder lessened to manslaughter.

It is difficult to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that an intoxicated person is able to exercise control over their actions despite lacking an understanding of what they are doing. When intoxication is used as a defence, it is perceived as a denial of intent and is usually used to indicate that the defendant has committed the crime, but did not know, because of their intoxication, that the ramifications of their behaviour would be criminal.


Mens rea, in Latin, is the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime. The general defence of mistake may be mounted to disprove the notion that an individual intentionally committed a crime. For the defence to be successful, it has to be proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that the accused's belief was honestly and genuinely mistaken.


The mental illness defence concedes that the crime was committed by the defendant, but endeavours to mitigate the ramifications of the event by proving that the individual lacked intent. Insanity is frequently defined as a lack of understanding of the illegality of a criminal act, or an inability to conform to the law.

In order for a defence of insanity to be mounted successfully, one must be able to prove that, at the time the act was carried out, the accused was affected by a disease of the mind that prevented the person from knowing the nature or impact of the crime they were committing. Alternatively, it could be used to argue that the individual, while aware of their actions, could not tell, because of their illness, that the act was criminal. Where a person wishes to raise an insanity defence, it is the responsibility of the defendant to prove their insanity.

In the Crown Court, a jury may return a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. A defence of insanity is known as a complete defence because it would result in an acquittal, however the individual would likely be held on mental health grounds.


A defence of duress can be mounted in cases where the defendant, although guilty of committing the crime in question, states that they were induced to commit the crime by another person under threat or duress. The defence can be mounted in cases where the individual believed they were truly at risk of harm from a third party person if they failed to carry out the crime. The evidence for duress must be raised by the defendant, with the prosecution inheriting the burden of disproving the assertion.

When considering the defence, the court will assess and evaluate the reasonableness of the defendant's actions in relation to the circumstances of the crime. They will consider, principally, whether the response was proportionate to the threat being levied.


A defence of necessity can be mounted in instances where a crime had to be committed in order to either save people from harm or prevent a more serious crime.

For example, trespassing on someone's property to prevent someone from drowning could be seen as a necessary crime; the crime of trespassing is less severe than the consequences of allowing someone to drown, which would be death.

The defence of necessity can also be used in cases where an individual caused harm to another person whilst assisting in the lawful arrest of an offender (the person affected).


Self-defence can be applied to cases wherein a defendant is charged of using force against another person. A self-defence defence can be mounted in cases where you were being threatened; another person was being threatened; or where property was being threatened.

The defence is available to all who truly believe that it was necessary for them to use the level of force they have been charged with using. In order for the defence to be believed, however, it has to be proven that the level of force used was reasonable; for this to happen, the physical characteristics of the defendant may be considered. It is for the prosecution to build a case against self-defence.

With self-defence, a person does not have to wait to be physically struck before acting in self-defence. Each self-defence case is unique, and whether the defence can be deemed reasonable depends on the facts and circumstances of the case in question. For example, a person who was punched in the face could not take a gun, shoot someone dead, and successfully posit a self-defence case; rather, they would be convicted, since lethal force can only be used by an individual when they reasonably, and truly, believe that they, or another person, is about to be seriously injured or even killed. The extent of the crime (murder) would not be considered proportionate to the first crime, or appropriate.

There is no legal requirement that a person must retreat as far as they can from an attacker before defending themselves, but their ability to move away and whether or not they took this option before attacking will be considered when the reasonableness of the force is assessed by the court. If an attack is sufficiently serious to put someone in dire peril, then immediate defensive action may be admissible, even if a route for escape was available. However, if the attack finishes and a route for escape is available, an attack would not be deemed appropriate in any circumstances.

It should be remembered, however, that when in a state of threat, the person defending themselves may not be able to accurately assess the proportionality of their defensive action.

Superior Orders

A person who is bound to obey a superior is under a legal duty to refuse to carry out any commands which are illegal in nature. If the illegal order is carried out, then the perpetrator may be found guilty, along with the superior who ordered the crime.


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