R v Steane

R v Steane 1947 KB 997 is a case decided by the English Court of Criminal Appeal on appeal from the Central Criminal Court examining the nature of intent in establishing criminal liability.

R v Steane
CourtCourt of Criminal Appeal
Decided1 May 1947
Citation(s)1947 KB 997
Cases citedNone
Legislation citedDefence (General) Regulations, 1939, Reg. 2a
Case history
Prior action(s)None
Subsequent action(s)None
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingGoddard, CJ
Intent; Duress; Motive


Steane was an actor who had been employed in Germany up to World War II, accompanied by his wife and children. At the outbreak of war, he was arrested, assaulted and interned before being sent for by Joseph Goebbels who asked him to broadcast in English on Germany's behalf. Steane initially refused but, being in fear of the fate of his family, eventually relented. At the end of the war, Steane reported to the liberating forces and described his experiences to them. As a result he appeared before Mr Justice Henn-Collins at the Central Criminal Court, charged with

doing acts likely to assist the enemy with intent to assist the enemy

contrary to Regulation 2A of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939, this offence carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. There was no evidence that his broadcasts assisted the enemy nor harmed the United Kingdom. It was argued by his defence team that his intention was not to assist the enemy but to secure the safety of his family. However he was convicted and sentenced to three years penal servitude.


Goddard, CJ, sitting alone, considered intention, making it clear that the prosecution bore the burden of proving the specific intent required by the definition of the offence. This point had been settled by Woolmington v. DPP in 1935 although no authorities were cited in his judgement. The pivotal dictum in the case is that

if the prosecution prove an act the natural consequences of which would be a certain result ... then a jury may ... find that the prisoner is guilty of doing the act with the intent alleged ... but, if ... there is room for more than one view as to the intent of the prisoner ... (and) if they either think that the intent did not exist or they are left in doubt as to the intent, the prisoner is entitled to be acquitted.

Goddard also referred to duress as a possible defence but ruled that it was unnecessary to consider it because of the particular conditions pertaining while the defendant was under the control of an enemy power. He said that an inference must be drawn that the defendant intended the natural consequences of his acts merely from the fact that he did them, but went on to say that this did not necessarily impute a guilty intent.

Having stated this, Goddard then decided Steane's appeal on the basis of the trial judge's summing up, stating that the various threats to which the defendant had been exposed were not adequately put to the jury and that as a result

the jury may well have been left with the impression that, as a man must be taken to intend the natural consequence of his actions, these matters as to which he had given evidence were of no moment.

and on this basis quashed the conviction.


This decision has since been regarded as being of its own type and closely dependent upon the circumstances of the offence. It has been said that applying too rigid a definition of intention would remove "moral elbow-room" from the jury.[1] However, a major criticism of the decision has been that it apparently extends the traditional definition of criminal liability by adding a requirement of purpose to those of actus reus and mens rea.[2] Contrast R v Howe 1987 AC 417 where the House of Lords held that defendants who participated in a murder were liable even if they acted under a threat to their own lives, the idea of purpose being there considered irrelevant, although obiter since the case was decided on the issue of duress.


  1. "Purpose v Intention".
  2. "Criticism" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on August 31, 2007.
  3. 22 Aug. 1946: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
  4. 16 Jan. 1947: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
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