Define: Exemption From Criminal Liability

Exemption From Criminal Liability
Exemption From Criminal Liability
Quick Summary of Exemption From Criminal Liability

Exemption from criminal liability refers to circumstances in which an individual is shielded from legal consequences for actions that would otherwise constitute a crime. Such exemptions may arise due to various factors, including age, mental incapacity, self-defence, necessity, or legal authority. For example, minors may be exempt from certain criminal penalties due to their age, and individuals acting in self-defence may be exempt if their actions are deemed reasonable and proportionate. These exemptions typically arise from legal defences recognised by law and are subject to judicial review and interpretation. Exemption from criminal liability aims to ensure that individuals are not held criminally responsible for actions taken under specific circumstances that warrant leniency or justification.

What is the dictionary definition of Exemption From Criminal Liability?
Dictionary Definition of Exemption From Criminal Liability

A person is automatically exempt from criminal liability if he or she:

  • is under 10 years of age, or
  • is classified as insane

A person may be shown to be exempt from criminal liability if he or she:

  • is under 14 years of age and has not developed a
  • sufficiently advanced understanding of right and wrong to merit liability, or is insufficiently responsible for his or her actions.

In all these cases, the accused may be liable to detention, e.g., under the Mental health act (1983), but cannot be convicted of the offence.

Full Definition Of Exemption From Criminal Liability

Exemption from criminal liability is a critical concept within criminal law, providing circumstances under which an individual is deemed not legally responsible for their actions. This principle acknowledges that, in certain situations, the imposition of criminal liability would be unjust or inappropriate due to specific factors relating to the defendant’s state of mind, coercion, or public policy considerations. This overview explores the key areas where exemptions from criminal liability may apply, including infancy, insanity, intoxication, duress, necessity, and self-defence, alongside their statutory and common law foundations within the context of British law.


Under British law, the doctrine of doli incapax operates to exempt very young children from criminal liability. Historically, children under the age of seven were conclusively presumed incapable of committing a crime, while those aged between seven and fourteen were rebuttably presumed to lack such capacity. However, the presumption of doli incapax for those aged ten to fourteen was abolished by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Today, children under ten years old are conclusively presumed incapable of committing a crime (Children and Young Persons Act 1933, s. 50). The rationale is that such young children cannot understand the difference between right and wrong to a sufficient degree to be held criminally responsible.


The insanity defence exempts individuals who, due to a mental disorder, were unable to understand the nature or wrongfulness of their actions at the time the crime was committed. The legal test for insanity in the UK is derived from the M’Naghten Rules (1843). According to these rules, to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proven that, at the time of the act, the accused was suffering from a “defect of reason” caused by a “disease of the mind,” rendering them unable to understand the nature of their act or to know that it was wrong.

The burden of proof lies on the defence to show, on the balance of probabilities, that the defendant was insane at the time of the offence. If successful, the verdict will be “not guilty by reason of insanity,” leading to potential outcomes such as hospital orders, supervision orders, or absolute discharge under the Criminal Procedure (Insanity and Unfitness to Plead) Act 1991.


Intoxication, whether voluntary or involuntary, can affect criminal liability, though its applicability varies. Voluntary intoxication, where the defendant willingly consumes an intoxicating substance, generally does not excuse criminal behaviour. However, it may negate the mens rea (mental element) required for specific intent crimes. Specific intent crimes require a higher degree of intention, such as murder or theft. If the defendant, due to intoxication, cannot form the specific intent, they may be acquitted of the specific intent crime but could still be liable for a lesser basic intent offence, such as manslaughter or assault.

Involuntary intoxication, where the defendant is intoxicated without their knowledge or against their will, provides a stronger defence. If involuntary intoxication negates the mens rea for both specific and basic intent crimes, the defendant may be acquitted.


Duress is a defence whereby a defendant argues they committed a crime because they were forced to do so under the threat of death or serious injury. British law recognises duress as a defence to most crimes, except for murder, attempted murder, and, in some cases, treason. The key case of R v. Howe (1987) established that duress is not available as a defence to murder.

The defence of duress requires the defendant to prove that they had a reasonable belief in the threat and that a person of reasonable firmness sharing the defendant’s characteristics would have acted similarly. The threat must be immediate or almost immediate, and there must be no safe avenue of escape. Furthermore, the threat must be to the defendant or someone for whom they have responsibility or feel responsible, such as a family member.


The defence of necessity involves committing what would otherwise be a criminal act to avoid greater harm. Although closely related to duress, necessity focuses more on the nature of the harm avoided than the threat. British law has historically been reluctant to recognise necessity as a general defence, with courts often conflating it with duress.

However, necessity has been acknowledged in limited circumstances, such as medical cases where life-saving treatment is required. For instance, in Re A (Conjoined Twins) (2000), the court allowed the separation of conjoined twins, resulting in the death of one, on the grounds that it was necessary to save the other. Generally, the defence requires a balancing act between the harm inflicted and the harm avoided, with the latter needing to be significantly greater.


Self-defence is a well-established defence allowing individuals to use reasonable force to protect themselves, others, or property from an imminent threat. The Criminal Law Act 1967, s. 3, codifies this principle, stating that a person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime.

The test for self-defence involves both subjective and objective elements. Subjectively, the defendant must genuinely believe that the use of force was necessary. Objectively, the force used must be reasonable and proportionate to the threat faced. In R v. Gladstone Williams (1984), it was held that if a defendant mistakenly believes they are under threat, they may still rely on self-defence, provided the belief was honestly held, even if unreasonable.

The case of R v. Martin (2001) highlighted the importance of proportionality in self-defence. In this case, a farmer was convicted of murder for shooting intruders, as the force used was deemed excessive. The case of R v. Collins (2020) further refined the approach, particularly in the context of householder cases, affirming that disproportionate force may be permissible in some circumstances, though grossly disproportionate force will not be.


Automatism refers to actions taken by an individual without conscious control, potentially providing a complete defence if it negates the mens rea of the crime. There are two types: sane and insane automatism. Sane automatism involves external factors, such as a blow to the head or the effects of a drug, causing a temporary lack of control. Insane automatism, on the other hand, stems from an internal condition akin to insanity under the M’Naghten Rules.

In the case of R v. Quick (1973), a diabetic nurse was acquitted of assault because he was in a hypoglycemic state due to insulin and a lack of food, constituting sane automatism. Conversely, in R v. Hennessy (1989), the defendant’s hyperglycemic state from diabetes without external factors was classified as insane automatism.


Consent can operate as a defence in specific contexts, such as in cases involving bodily harm where the victim consents to the risk, as seen in sports or surgical procedures. The defence is limited and does not apply to serious harm or where public policy considerations override consent, such as in cases of euthanasia or sadomasochistic activities, as determined in R v. Brown (1993).


Entrapment occurs when law enforcement induces an individual to commit a crime they would not have otherwise committed. While entrapment itself is not a defence in British law, evidence obtained through entrapment may be excluded under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, s.78, if it would have an adverse effect on the fairness of the proceedings. This approach was affirmed in R v. Loosely (2001), where the House of Lords emphasised the importance of fair conduct by law enforcement.

Diplomatic Immunity

Diplomatic immunity provides exemptions from criminal prosecution to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, incorporated into UK law by the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964. Diplomats are protected to ensure the smooth functioning of international relations, though such immunity can be waived by the diplomat’s home country.

Statutory Defences

Various statutes provide specific defences to particular offences. For instance, the Theft Act 1968 offers defences for offences like theft, including belief in legal right, which exempts a person who believes they have a legal right to the property taken. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 includes defences relating to age and consent, recognising reasonable belief in the victim’s age in certain circumstances.

Public Interest Immunity

Public interest immunity (PII) allows for the withholding of evidence in a criminal trial if disclosing it would harm the public interest, such as compromising national security or endangering informants. While PII does not directly exempt an individual from liability, it can impact the prosecution’s ability to prove its case, potentially leading to an acquittal.


Exemption from criminal liability is a multifaceted and essential aspect of criminal law, acknowledging that, in certain circumstances, holding an individual criminally responsible would be unjust. Whether due to age, mental disorder, coercion, necessity, self-defence, or public policy considerations, these exemptions ensure that the law operates fairly and justly, reflecting the complexities of human behaviour and societal values. Each exemption has its own specific criteria and limitations, shaped by statutory provisions and judicial interpretations, underscoring the importance of context in the application of criminal law.

Related Phrases
No related content found.

This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

  • Page URL:
  • Modern Language Association (MLA):Exemption From Criminal Liability. DLS Solicitors. June 12 2024
  • Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):Exemption From Criminal Liability. DLS Solicitors. (accessed: June 12 2024).
  • American Psychological Association (APA):Exemption From Criminal Liability. Retrieved June 12 2024, from website:
Avatar of DLS Solicitors
DLS Solicitors : Family Law Solicitors

Our team of professionals are based in Alderley Edge, Cheshire. We offer clear, specialist legal advice in all matters relating to Family Law, Wills, Trusts, Probate, Lasting Power of Attorney and Court of Protection.

All author posts