Monthly Nutcase: R v Smith 1959 (Criminal Law)

No comments, posted on March 1, 2013

This month in our series of monthly bitesize extracts from Nutcases revision guides,  we have an outline of R v Smith 1959.

Key Principle

An intervening event will not break the chain of causation if the defendant’s conduct is still an operative and substantial cause of the result.

R. v Smith 1959: The case

Nutcase-Revision-Guide-REUTERS-Tony Gentile

REUTERS/Tony Gentile

The defendant stabbed the victim, causing internal injury. A medical officer, not realising the nature of the injury, gave “thoroughly bad” treatment. The victim died within two hours of being stabbed but might not have died if given different treatment. The defendant appealed against conviction for murder on the basis that the treatment broke the chain.

Appeal dismissed. Death resulted from the original wound which was still an operating and substantial cause of the death despite other operative causes. [1959] 2 Q.B. 35.


The court distinguished Jordan as “a very particular case, depending on its exact facts”. Jordan was also said to be “very exceptional” (and Smith was preferred) in Malcherek & Steel (1981) (CA) where life support for two injured victims was disconnected by doctors. Since the treatment was “normal and conventional” and the original injuries were still operative, the court held that discontinuing treatment did not break the chain of causation. Also, note the view in Airedale that allowing a patient to die of a pre-existing condition does not, in law, amount to causing the death which is still treated as caused by the pre-existing condition. Overall, the distinction between Smith and Jordan seems to be that in Jordan the wound, having practically healed, ceased to operate. Any attempt to distinguish the cases on the degree of fault involved in the treatment should now be avoided according to R. v Cheshire (1991) (see below).

Key Principle

To operate as a novus actus interveniens, the intervening event must be so potent and independent of the defendant’s actions as to render those actions “insignificant”.


This is an extract from Nutcases Criminal Law by Penny Childs, available from bookstores and

Nutshells and Nutcases are the original revision and starter guides with content from Sweet & Maxwell and Westlaw UK. Nutshells are an ideal starter guide to the subject, giving a full overview, while Nutcases give an in-depth case analysis of the facts, principles and decisions of the most important cases.

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