NOTES OF CASES

DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2230.1961.tb00661.x
Publication Date01 Jan 1961
NOTES
OF
CASES
IRRESISTIBLE
IMPULSE
AND
DIMINISHED RESPONSIBILITY
THE
case of
R.
v.
Byrne
is of interest not only because
it
further
clarifies the meaning and scope of the defence of diminished
responsibility, under section
2
of the Homicide Act,
1957,2
but
also because it demonstrates that the concept of mental abnormality
under that section is much wider than M’Naughten insanity, and
includes the notion of irresistible impulse, which has been for
so
long resisted in connection with the defence of insanity, and which
resistance the Judicial Committee has
so
recently c~nfirmed.~
This case was the appeal in what will probably be known as
the Y.W.C.A. hostel murder case, where the accused had been
convicted of murderipg a girl whom he had strangled in
a
Birming-
ham hostel, and whose body he had mutilated. Three medical
witnesses called by the defence, including the prison medical officer,
were unanimously of the opinion that Byrne was a sexual psycho-
path and that he suffered from abnormality of mind, and, as the
Court of Criminal Appeal observed, this was abundantly clear from
the other evidence in the case. These medical witnesses considered
that the abnormality of mind was such as to satisfy the conditions
laid down in section
2
of the Homicide Act,
1957,
viz.,
that in this
case it arose from a condition of arrested
or
retarded development
of mind
or
inherent causes, and that this made it difficult
or
impossible for him to control his violent and perverted sexual
desires. All three doctors were of the opinion that, although Byrne
was not insane within the M’Naughten Rules, he was of diminished
responsibility.
The appeal turned on the trial judge’s direction to the
jury
on
this matter. In effect, Stable
J.
had told the jury that a sexual
psychopath, as defined by these doctors, could not claim a defence
under the section. The fact that the accused found
it
difficult
or
impossible to control his violent sexual desires
or
impulses did not
constitute such abnormality of mind as to substantially impair his
mental responsibility for his acts.
In other words, mental
affliction is one thing. The
section is not there to give protection where there
is
nothing else
than what is vicious and depraved.”
The Court of Criminal Appeal took no exception to this last
phrase, but held that taken as a whole there was a misdirection
The section is there to protect them.
1
rig601 3
W.L.R.
440;
[igsol
3
-411
E.R.
1.
2
For
preyious
cases, see
21
M.L.R.
318
(May
1958); 21
M.L.R.
544
(Septem-
8
Att.-Qen.
for
S.
Australia
v.
John
Whelan
Brown
[1960] 2
W.L.R.
588;
ber
1958); 23
M.L.R.
191
(March
1960).
23
M.L.R.
545
(September
1960).
164
Jas.
1961
NOTES
OF
CASES
165
in the summing-up, and they substituted
For
the verdict of non-
capital murder a verdict of manslaughter. The sentence of life
imprisonment was not disturbed, that being
the only possible
sentence having regard to the tendencies of the accused.”
Lord Parker
C.J.
examines the law relating to the defence of
diminished responsibility against the background of the law of
murder, the M’Naughten Rules, and the rules relating to provoca-
tion. He shows how the common law dealt with
loss
of self-control,
then demonstrates
in
a most lucid fashion that the approach under
the Homicide Act,
1957,
s.
2
(1))
is much wider.
‘‘
Abnormality of mind,” which has to be contrasted with
the time-honoured expression in the M’Naughten Rules
defect of reason,” means a state
of
mind
so
different from
that of ordinary human beings that the reasonable man would
term
it
abnormal.
It
appears to us to be wide enough to cover
the mind’s activities in all its aspects, not only the perception
of physical acts and matters, and the ability
to
form a rational
judgment as to whether an act is right
or
wrong, but also the
ability to exercise will power to control physical acts in accor-
dance with that rational judgment. The expression
mental
responsibility
for
his acts
points to a consideration of the
extent to which the accused’s mind is answerable for his
physical acts which must include a consideration of the extent
of his ability to exercise will power to control his physical
The court went on to consider the role of the jury and of the
medical experts in relation to the evidence of abnormality
of
mind,
repeating much the same ideas as had been previously expounded
in
Matheson
The jury are not bound to accept
even the unanimous medical evidence
if
there is material before
them which, in their judgment, conflicts with
it
and outweighs
it.
While the question of the aetiology of the abnormality of mind
(namely, whether
it
arose from a condition of arrested
or
retarded
development of mind
or
any inherent causes,
or
was induced by
disease
or
injury) is a matter to be determined on the experts’
evidence, the question whether the abnormality of mind,
if
it
is
proved, is such as substantially impaired the accused’s mental
responsibility for his acts in doing
or
being a party to the killing
is a question of degree, and this is essentially a question for the
jury.
Further, the question whether a person
could
not
resist
or
control himself
or
did
not
resist his impulse is one which is not
susceptible to scientific proof, and the jury can only approach the
matter in a broad, common-sense way. The judge had misdirected
the jury in telling them that difficulty
or
even inability to exercise
will power to control one’s physical acts could not amount to such
and
Walden.e
4
LOC.
cit.
pp.
449-444.
3
[1958] 1
W.L.R.
474.
6
[1959]
1
W.L.R.
1008.

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