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Exam technique advice

How to Tackle Scenario Questions in Criminal Law

Here's a great technique for answering those tough criminal law scenario questions for non-fatal offences.

Answering a scenario question in criminal law is a lot like telling a good joke: if you take too long to get to the end, no one will understand what you were trying to say - rush it and the joke won’t be funny.

- Knock, knock
- Who’s there? 
- Canoe 
- Canoe who? 
- Canoe help me with my law work? 

If that joke had gone straight from knock knock to asking for help with law work, it wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn't be funny. 

You need to have the right lead-up before you can get to the punch line to get the full impact. 

It’s the same with criminal scenarios - you can’t rush straight to the application before you’ve explained how you came to that conclusion. 

Actus reus and mens rea

A key principle in criminal law is that a crime consists of a physical and mental element - “actus reus and mens rea”

  • Actus reus, the act itself, is the physical element
  • Mens rea, a person's awareness of the fact that his or her conduct is criminal, is the mental element

State - Explain - Apply (SEA)

In a criminal scenario you need to remember to:

  1. State your actus reus
  2. Explain your actus reus with a case
  3. Apply your actus reus

You would then repeat these 3 steps for the mens rea before concluding whether or not your defendant is liable.

A simple scenario

Let's apply the principle of actus reus and mens rea using SEA to a really simple scenario:  

  1. Andy hides behind a door and waits for Bilal
  2. When Andy sees Bilal, he jumps out and shouts “I’m going to get you” 
  3. Bilal runs away screaming

Actus reus

First, work out which is the relevant non-fatal offence and then state your actus reus

  • There may have been an assault - the actus reus of assault is causing your victim to apprehend (fear) immediate unlawful physical force

Move on to explain your actus reus with a case

  • Remember you’re not telling the story of the case, you’re focusing on the legal reasoning and using the case to illustrate the point you’ve just made 
  • The case of R v Ireland [1997] where the defendant made a series of silent phone calls illustrates that an assault can be committed without any words at all 

Now you’ve set your scene you can apply your actus reus

  • In our simple scenario, Andy has the actus reus because his action of jumping out and shouting caused Bilal to fear immediate unlawful force - we know this is the case because Bilal ran away screaming 

Mens rea

State the mens rea of the offence 

  • The mens rea of assault is intention or recklessness to cause the victim to apprehend immediate unlawful force

Explain the mens rea of the offence with a case 

  • The mens rea can be seen in R v Spratt [1990] which confirmed that recklessness is sufficient for the offence of assault and the defendant would at least be aware of the risk of causing another to apprehend harm

Apply the mens rea - state which level of mens rea the defendant appears to have.  

  • In our scenario it would appear that Andy had direct intent as seen in R v Mohan [1976] because it was his aim or purpose to scare Bilal
  • We can see this in both his action (he hid behind the door) and his words “I’m going to get you”. Andy’s desire was to frighten Bilal and he clearly achieved this wish


Finally, you need to come up with an overall conclusion - is your defendant liable or not? 

Don’t forget this - you must include the conclusion! Otherwise, you’re not really answering the question. 

And remember that you cannot say whether someone is guilty or not guilty - that is the job of the jury.

In our scenario you can say Andy is potentially liable for an assault on Bilal.  

The best part about this technique is that once you’ve figured out your SEA, you can use exactly the same technique for non-scenario, non-fatal offence.  

- Knock, knock. 
- Who’s there? 
- Luke. 
- Luke who? 
- Luke how easy those scenarios are when you’ve got a plan to follow! 

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