DPP v Stonehouse

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeLord Diplock,Viscount Dilhorne,Lord Salmon,Lord Edmund-Davies,Lord Keith of Kinkel
Judgment Date30 June 1977
Judgment citation (vLex)[1977] UKHL J0630-2
CourtHouse of Lords
Date30 June 1977
Director of Public Prosecutions
(on Appeal from the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division))

[1977] UKHL J0630-2

Lord Diplock

Viscount Dilhorne

Lord Salmon

Lord Edmund-Davies

Lord Keith of Kinkel

House of Lords

Upon Report from the Appellate Committee, to whom was referred the Cause Director of Public Prosecutions against Stonehouse (on Appeal from the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)), That the Committee had heard Counsel, as well on Monday the 2d. as on Tuesday the 3d, days of May last, upon the Petition and Appeal of John Thomson Stonehouse at present detained at Her Majesty's Prison, Blundeston, Suffolk, praying, That the matter of the Order set forth in the Schedule thereto, namely, an Order of Her Majesty's Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) of the 27th of January 1977, might he reviewed before Her Majesty the Queen, in Her Court of Parliament, and that the said Order might be reversed, varied or altered, or that the Petitioner might have such other relief in the premises as to Her Majesty the Queen in Her Court of Parliament, might seem meet; and Counsel having been heard on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Respondent to the said Appeal; and due consideration had this day of what was offered on either side in this Cause:

It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in the Court of Parliament of Her Majesty the Queen assembled, That the said Order of Her Majesty's Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), of the 27th day of January 1977, complained of in the said Appeal, be, and the same is hereby, Affirmed, and that the said Petition and Appeal be, and the same is hereby, dismissed this House.

Lord Diplock

My Lords


In 1974, John Thomson Stonehouse ("the accused") was a well-known public figure in this country. A Member of Parliament and a Privy Councillor, he had held a number of ministerial posts in the Government during the six years up to 1970. Thereafter he became active in business through a company, Export Promotion and Consultancy Services Ltd., which he controlled.


By the summer of 1974, however, his personal finances were in a disastrous state. He decided to fake his death by drowning and to start life afresh under a new identity with money dishonestly obtained and clandestinely transferred to his chosen country of refuge, Australia. He carried out this plan, but was discovered living in Australia under his false identity some five weeks after his pretended death by drowning. He was extradited and stood his trial at the Old Bailey on an indictment charging him with sixteen complete offences of dishonesty and forgery and five offences of attempting to obtain property by deception (counts 17 to 21).


This House is not concerned in this appeal with any of the charges of complete offences. He was convicted on thirteen of these. Your Lordships are concerned with those five counts (17 to 21) which charged him with the inchoate crime of attempting to obtain property by deception. The intended victims of the deception charges were five different life insurance companies, which had issued to Mrs. Stonehouse, the wife of the accused, policies amounting in all to £125,000 payable upon her husband's death within five years. Apart from the names of the insurers, the amounts insured and the dates on which the policies were taken out, all five counts were in identical terms and it is sufficient to refer to one of them.

" Seventeenth Count. Statement of Offence.

Attempt to obtain property by deception.

Particulars of Offence

John Thomson Stonehouse on the 20th day of November 1974 dishonestly attempted to enable Barbara Joan Stonehouse to obtain from the Canada Life Assurance Company in the United Kingdom a cheque for the sum of £25,000 by deception, namely by falsely pretending that he had drowned so that the benefit payable on his death under a Life Insurance Policy which commenced on the 10th day of July 1974 had become payable by the said Insurers."


The facts that gave rise to these charges can be stated briefly. Mrs. Stonehouse was not a party to the accused's plan. She was intended to believe that he had died by drowning. The accused intended to transfer to Australia all the money that he could lay his hands on; so upon his death being presumed, his estate would be insolvent. To provide for his wife, ostensibly his widow, after his disappearance there were taken out between July and September 1974, in Mrs. Stonehouse's name, the five policies of insurance to a total amount of £125,000 payable to her upon the death of her husband within five years. Active steps in arranging for the issue of the policies to his wife were taken by the accused himself in England. On 20th November 1974 the accused faked his death by accidental drowning in the sea off Miami in Florida, U.S.A., to which city he had gone with a business associate, ostensibly for a business meeting. He had made an appointment for such a meeting later on that day and pending this had told his companion that he was going to the beach to have a swim. When he failed to keep the business appointment, enquiries were set on foot. His clothes, valuables and passport were found to be still in his hotel room and his bath robe was found in a bathing hut on the beach. Of the accused himself there was no trace. In fact he had left Miami secretly by air, wearing a new suit of clothes which he had secreted and equipped with a false passport to conceal his identity. He eventually reached Australia and remained there undetected until December 24th 1974.


As soon as his disappearance at Miami was discovered in the circumstances summarised above, the hue and cry was raised. The police were brought in and, as was inevitable, the circumstances of his disappearance hit the headlines in the press, and on television and radio, in England. What the accused had done ensured, as he intended, that the news of his death by drowning should be communicated in England to his wife, who he intended should claim the policy monies, and to the insurance companies, who he intended should pay them over to her.


At his trial the accused was convicted on the five counts of attempting to obtain property by deception. He had discharged his counsel early in the proceedings and no point was taken at the trial that these offences were committed outside the territorial jurisdiction of the English court.


On his appeal to the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, the accused was represented by counsel who took the territorial jurisdiction point and two other points of law. They were that the acts of the accused at Miami on 20th November 1974 were not sufficiently proximate to the complete offence of obtaining property by deception to be capable in law of constituting an attempt to commit that crime; or, in the alternative, that the question whether they were sufficiently proximate was one of fact for the jury and that the judge had wrongly treated it as one of law and withdrawn that question from them.


The appeal was dismissed, but the Court of Appeal certified that the following point of law of general public importance was involved in the decision to dismiss the appeal against conviction upon counts 17 to 21.

"Whether the offence of attempting on 20th November 1974 to obtain property in England by deception, the final act alleged to constitute the offence of attempt having occurred outside the jurisdiction of the English Courts is triable in an English Court, all the remaining acts necessary to constitute the complete offence being intended to take place in England."


In addition to the certified question, counsel for the accused in the appeal to this House has also relied upon the other two alternative contentions on which he was also unsuccessful in the Court of Appeal. I propose to deal first with the certified question.


The completed crime which the accused was charged with attempting to commit was that defined in section 15 of the Theft Act 1968. Since it will be necessary to analyse the constituent elements of this statutory offence I will first set out the section in full (omitting only subsection (3)).

"(1) A person who by any deception dishonestly obtains property belonging to another, with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it, shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

(2) For purposes of this section a person is to be treated as obtaining property if he obtains ownership, possession or control of it and 'obtain' includes obtaining for another or enabling another to obtain or to retain.


(4) For purposes of this section 'deception' means any deception (whether deliberate or reckless) by words or conduct as to fact or as to law, including a deception as to the present intentions of the person using the deception or any other person."


Like all definitions of conduct which constitutes a criminal offence it contains expressly or by implication a description both of the acts of the accused which are the constituent physical elements of the crime ( actus reus) and of his slate of mind when he did them which is the constituent mental element ( mens red); but it also incorporates a requirement that the conduct of the accused must be followed by a described consequence which he intended that conduct to bring about. So in the classification suggested by Professor Gordon in his book "The Criminal Law of Scotland" (1967) the offence of obtaining property by deception is a "result-crime", not a mere "conduct-crime" such as blackmail under section 21 of the same Act; and is that kind of "result-crime" in which, unlike such offences as unlawful wounding or involuntary manslaughter, the described consequence must not only occur but its occurrence must also have been intended by the accused. The definition contains no reference to the place...

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