Anderton v Ryan [1985] AC 560

Key point

  • A defendant is not liable for attempt where he mistakenly believed himself to be carrying out an illegal act that was in fact innocent (if completed) – this was overruled in Shivpuri


  • D handled a video cassette believing it to be stolen
  • However, there was no evidence that the cassette was in fact stolen
  • D was charged with attempted handling of stolen goods contrary to s1(1) Criminal Attempts Act 1981

Held (House of Lords)

  • Appeal allowed – D was acquitted
  • The majority held that D could not be convicted because D’s act was ‘objectively innocent’ meaning that if completed, it could never have constituted the substantive offence of handling

Lord Roskill

  • Criminal Attempts Act 1981, s1(3) ‘does not compel the conclusion that an erroneous belief in the existence of facts which, if true, would have made his completed act a crime makes him guilty of an attempt to commit that crime’
  • “If the contrary proposition be correct, some remarkable results follow. Let me take only one example. A young gentleman is determined upon sexual intercourse with a young lady whom he erroneously believes to be under 16. She is in fact 18. He succeeds in his ambition.”

Lord Bridge 

  • “Does section 1 of the Act of 1981 create a new offence of attempt where a person embarks on and completes a course of conduct which is objectively innocent, solely on the ground that the person mistakenly believes facts which, if true, would make that course of conduct a complete crime? If the question must be answered affirmatively it requires convictions in a number of surprising cases: the classic case, put by Bramwell B. in Reg. v. Collins (1864) 9 Cox C.C. 497 , of the man who takes away his own umbrella from a stand, believing it not to be his own and with intent to steal it; the case of the man who has consensual intercourse with a girl over 16 believing her to be under that age; the case of the art dealer who sells a picture which he represents to be and which is in fact a genuine Picasso, but which the dealer mistakenly believes to be a fake. The common feature of all these cases, including that under appeal, is that the mind alone is guilty, the act is innocent.”

Lord Edmund Davies dissenting

  • The majority did not correctly interpret s1(3) of the 1981 Act
  • “The legality of [the defendant’s] conduct now falls to be judged by applying the Act, her belief being vitally relevant not only to her intent but also to the quality in law of her ‘objective’ actions.”


  • Lord Bridge and Lord Roskill were troubled by the unusual cases that would be covered if s1(3) were given a wide scope proposed by the prosecution, but in Shivpuri Lord Bridge pushed aside such concerns on the ground that those cases would unlikely to be prosecuted
Inchoate Liability Cases
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