Cheshire [1991] 3 All ER 670, [1991] Crim. L.R. 709

Key point

  • For an act by a third party to break the chain of causation, it must be sufficiently independent and potent that it renders the original cause insignificant, the level of fault of the third party is irrelevant


  • D shot V in leg and stomach
  • V died nearly two months later, following negligent medical treatment
  • The judge gave direction to the jury that the chain of causation was broken only if they find the doctor to have been grossly negligent i.e., reckless
  • D was convicted for murder


  • Was the direction correct and was there a break in the chain of causation?

Held (Court of Appeal)

  • Appeal dismissed; there was no break in the chain of causation
  • The judge erred in his direction by referencing fault, but the outcome was correct

Beldam LJ

Causation in general

  • For the defendant to be responsible, his acts ‘need not be the sole cause or even the main cause of death it being sufficient that his acts contributed significantly to that result.’: p. 851
  • The defendant’s responsibility is excluded only when ‘the negligent treatment was so independent of his acts, and in itself so potent in causing death, that they regard the contribution made by his acts as insignificant.’: p. 852
  • Falling below the standard of a competent doctor is not enough, the acts of a doctor must be ‘extraordinary’ to be considered independent of the conduct of the defendant and this is highly unlikely

Current case

  • The judge erred in his direction by including fault in causation: ‘Epithets suggestive of degrees of blameworthiness may be of little help in deciding how potent the conduct was in causing the result. A momentary lapse of concentration may lead to more serious consequences than a more glaring neglect of duty.’: p. 849
  • However, there was no miscarriage of justice – even if more experienced doctors would have not committed the mistake, D’s acts remained a significant cause of death and a jury would not have found otherwise


  • This case shows the difference between causation in criminal law and civil law – in tort the level of fault involved in the third party’s intervening act affects whether there is a break in the chain of causation, the greater the fault the more likely there is a break