Book review- Alan Norrie’s Crime, Reason and History

by Nick Hatton

Crime, Reason and History is a digestible attempt to situate the Law amid advances in medicine, society and thinking.

Norrie’s book, for all its brevity, takes its reader through 13 chapters. It covers many of the significant cases cited in common law criminal proceedings. Fortunately for the Law student, these are presented in a logical format. The authors’ attempts to contextualise the cases gives the reader something to think about. 

The chapters on mens rea and actus reus (part ii and iii) are useful reference tools for students. The chapters on mens rea delve into the relationship between motive and intention (Chapter 3). The significance of the binding murder cases of Nedrick, Moloney and Woolin are discussed. This leads naturally, as in many criminal law textbooks, to the issues of Recklessness  (chapter 4) and Strict and Corporate liability  (chapter 5).

The chapters on Actus Reus are, by nature, more descriptive. There is some discussion of the nature of voluntarism. The somewhat inconsistent case of Chetwynd (1912) is cited. Here, a suspect’s appeal was rejected on the basis that their behaviour constituted “non insane automatism”.

The book really comes into its own in part iv (chapters 8-11). Part iv discusses defences available to those accused of crimes. Many of these are established in case law. However, the book is sufficiently exploratory to analyse the influence of psychiatry and sociology on the criminal legal system.

The defence of necessity is discussed, with reference to the fascinating Victorian case of Dudley and Stephens (1881-1885). Dudley and Stephens were eventually found guilty of murder, after killing and cannibalising a cabin boy on a sinking ship. However, on appeal, the pair both had their sentences commuted from death to 6 months Imprisonment.

In the book, psychiatry is painted as a predominantly liberalising influence on criminal law. The book discusses the MNaghten criteria for establishing Legal insanity. This is based on the case of Daniel M’Naghten. This was a man that was acquitted of murdering somebody on the basis of his delusional beliefs. He shot a man whom he believed to be Robert Peel; a politician. He believed that he was under the control of the Tory party.

The defendant cited contemporary medical evidence in putting his case forward. Interestingly, the MNaghten rules have remained pertinent in Law since 1843.

Skipping forward to the 21st century, the case of Dowds  (2012) brought into question Lord Birkenhead’s long held view of voluntary intoxication. Rather than the act of drunkenness as “an aggravation rather than a defence”(DPP v Beard, 1920), Dowds succesfully managed to argue his way to the Court of Appeal on the basis that his substance abuse fit the criteria for mental illness in two separate, medically recognised diagnostic manuals.

One might find fault in Alan Norrie’s assertion of Psychiatry as a liberalising influence on the Law. Whilst the author rightly brings the issue of determinism into the fray (chapter 9), there is no mention of the horrendously biodeterminist 19th century practice of phrenology. Nor is any mention made of the seminal tort case of Bolam v Friern Hospital Management Committee (1957). This case set a precedent for Doctors to justify physical injury to patients, so long as this is concomitant with contemporary medical opinion.

Another criticism, in my view, is the authors tendency to fall back on American case law. The books discussion of acts and omissions  (chapter 6) paraphrases large sections of Hart and Honoré (1985)’s analysis of American case law. In the chapter on diminished responsibility (C9) several paragraphs are devoted to an analysis of Durham (1954). This can seem confusing in relation to a discussion of the MNaghten rules.

Overall, the book is readable and thought provoking. The contextual approach allows readers from other disciplines  (history, philosophy, medicine, psychology) a critical perspective on our legal system. However; the brevity of this text means that the analysis is, in some places, shallow. This may leave the discerning reader ultimately unsatisfied and pining for his Halsbury’s Laws of England; his RD Laing, or his Michel Foucault.