Intoxication and Criminal Responsibility in England, 1819-1920

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In the period 1819-1920 the ostensibly strict English common law rule that drunkenness was not an excuse to any criminal charge was modified. It was formally recognized that, at least for crimes requiring proof of a specific intention, intoxication could reduce liability. Legal historians have explained this course of development with reference to the establishment of a subjective pattern of criminal responsibility. Conceived as a mental condition excuse, intoxication could only be accommodated in legal doctrine once the defendant's state of mind became the focus for investigation. This article suggests reasons to revise this account. Drawing extensively on trial reports, it offers an interpretation that attends closely to the relationships between doctrine, policy and contemporary understandings of individual responsibility for drunken violence. It argues that, in an age of temperance, doctrinal development was driven by judicial concern to narrow the scope of the excuse and it was only late in the nineteenth century, as drunkenness became mixed with insanity in legal doctrine, that there was a sustained focus on the defendant's state of mind. The article ends with a re-evaluation of DPP v Beard [1920] AC 479 (HL), which is still cited as a foundational case for the modern doctrinal approach to the issue. © The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)243-262
Number of pages19
JournalOxford Journal of Legal Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013


  • Criminal defences
  • Criminal justice
  • Criminal law
  • Legal history


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