How Intervening Acts Complicate Causation: A Victim-Centric Analysis.


Criminal causation establishes a cause-and-effect relationship between an accused’s actions (source) and the final injury inflicted on the victim. Ascertaining the accused’s liability is simple when the causal chain is direct, but the courts’ task becomes tricky when there are intervening act(s) between the cause and effect. Herein, courts have to determine the operating (continuing) cause to determine liability. If the act(s) of the accused remains substantially impactful throughout the causal chain, it becomes the operating cause, and the accused is held liable. But if the intervening act is so overwhelmingly impactful that it negates the source to break the causal chain, the accused escapes liability. In such cases, the intervening act becomes the operating cause.

Courts grapple with several challenges while identifying the operating cause. They err in deciding cases by conflating factual and legal causation. In some cases, multiple causes lead to the eventual result. Meticulously deciding the role of each event becomes relevant in such cases. Intervening acts by third parties or by the victim himself- raise questions as to whether the intervention severs the chain of causation. This blog focuses on one of the qualitative aspects of intervening acts as one of these challenges. It addresses the determination of whether a victim’s intervening act is voluntary or involuntary as a challenge and proposes a potential solution to deal with it by referring to multiple English and Australian cases and their difference from the Indian approach. It argues for the formulation of a subjective, victim-centric approach to ascertain this nature of the intervention. Overall, the jurisprudence on intervening acts is complicated and based on multiple variables. This blog endeavours to provide a coherent and flexible legal framework that our courts can rely on while adjudicating on cases in the field of causation.

Various Approaches to Victim Intervention Cases

If the victim’s intervening act is voluntary, the causal chain is severed, the intervention becomes the operating cause and the accused escapes liability. However, if the victim’s intervention is involuntary, the source remains the operating cause and the causal chain is extended. Thus, determining this nature of the intervention is integral to determining the operating cause. Different courts within and across jurisdictions deal with this challenge differently. In the Australian case of Royall v. R, the court stated that the causal link does not break if the victim has a “well-founded and reasonable apprehension” of fatal violence and had jumped out of the window to escape such violence. In another case of Yarran v. State of Western Australia, the victim jumped out of a car because the three, armed accused were threatening to burn it and had resorted to violence against the victim’s friends. Herein, the court ruled against the accused and remarked that the victim’s reaction was not disproportionate/ unreasonable as the intimidations were a substantial contributor to her intervention. In the English case of R v. Williams, the court held that the causal chain does not break where the victim is killed while fleeing from violence. In another case of R v. Blaue, a woman died from stab wounds, having refused a blood transfusion due to her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. At the outset, this is an ostensibly unreasonable and voluntary act because no one is expected to refuse a life-salvaging treatment due to religious reasons. Butthe victim’s decision was not free due to society attaching high values to one’s conscience about a chosen faith. In fact, the court did hold the accused liable and did not practise subtle victim-blaming.

However, the Indian approach has been different. In Govindaswamy v. State,the Supreme Court ruled that since it has not been proven that the defendant had pushed the victim off the train, he cannot be held liable. Thereby, it implied that the victim jumping or falling off accidentally would break the causal chain.Furthermore, in Joginder Singh v. State of Punjab, the defendants attacked the victim in his house. Anticipating danger to his life, the victim ran out, jumped into a well and drowned while the armed defendants were 15-20 feet behind him. The Court exonerated the defendants by stating that there was no evidence pointing to no other escape option for the victim.

A Critique of the Indian Approach

The above comparison is done to critique this objective and contentiously victim-skeptic approach of Indian courts in the light of English and Australian cases and to plug fact-construing gaps in Indian adjudication by trying to emulate the diverse approach of English and Australian courts. Indian courts in the two aforementioned cases erred by failing to take the victim’s circumstances into consideration while determining the nature of his intervention. An act may seem voluntary from a third party’s perspective, but it may appear involuntary from the victim’s circumstantial perspective. When there is involuntariness intrinsic in a voluntary act, it does not break the causal chain.The nature of the threat is also an important criterion to determine the victim’s conduct. In Joginder, the defendants were armed with deadly weapons so it’s evident that the threat’s nature was grave. Even if there were other escape routes, no reasonable third person can expect the victim to think through his options while desperately trying to save his life. The well was an only clear escape from the victim’s perspective. Accordingly, jumping into it would have been a “natural consequence” of the panic-stricken victim based on “well-founded apprehension” of fatal violence. In Govindaswamy too, the victim had apparently jumped out of a train after the defendant had started banging her head repeatedly against the compartment wall. Both these judgements lack substantiating precedents and unfortunately, the erroneous precedent set by the apex court in Govindasvamy itself is reflective of a loophole in our approach’s future. Both these situations are acts of an escape from violent crimes where self-preservation is said to negate the voluntariness of the intervening actions. If courts examine the facts broadly and in a wider context, superficially voluntary acts will appear involuntary. A divergent, Indian example of such an approach is Basappa v. State. In this case, the defendants attacked and injured the victim with dangerous weapons on a roof. To avoid being hacked to death, the victim jumped off the roof. Herein, the court ruled that the victim’s act was a “direct, normal and necessary result” of the defendant’s actions. Similarly in Pitts, the victim jumped into a river to escape the defendant’s attacks and drowned. The court sidelined the question of more escape routes and held that a reasonable person in the victim’s shoes would do the same.

Subjective Approach as a Potential Solution

With respect to the above criticisms, a subjective, victim-oriented approach while ascertaining the intervention’s nature could be adopted. One could argue for a reasonable third person’s (objective) standard but as analysed in Joginder, the reasonability of a third party cannot be applied to a victim being subjected to constant jeopardy due to which he is in a strained mental state and thus, not as reasonable as a third person. This approach is not ideal because a third party cannot fully understand the victim’s perspective during the crime. Victims respond differently, highlighting the need for a subjective standard rather than a universal one. However, this brings a challenge: objectively unreasonable acts might be seen as subjectively reasonable. Some actions are inherently unreasonable, so courts need guidelines to avoid unjustly high conviction rates from applying the subjective test too broadly.

Courts can rely on a framework of two conditions to reach a just outcome. If the victim’s act is not a reaction to the defendant’s act and if a reaction is “out of the ordinary”, a victim’s act will be considered as subjectively unreasonable. This prospective guideline was not followed in State v. Leopold where the accused was held liable when the tenant of a house set alight by the accused sent his sons into the building to recover property. In this case, it was held to be “natural” to recover property and thus, the victims’ act was considered involuntary. But its reckless, indeed “unnatural” (out of the ordinary) to put property above the lives of one’s children so the ground for saying that Leopold caused the death is not conclusive but contingent on one’s factual interpretation. Furthermore, the act of risking the lives of one’s children was an instinctive reaction to save property and not to the accused’s initial act of setting the house alight. Overall, this solution draws on case comparisons to solve certain interpretative inconsistencies in causation. Latent caveats are acknowledged to suggest a uniform approach to the courts in victim intervention cases.

One can also look at the 2019 Yarran case, a recent development in causation law. Unlike previous cases, Yarran involved no direct physical violence, only imminent threat, leading to the victim’s intervention due to fear from the accused’s intimidations. This case supports expanding the blog’s proposed solution to cover both immediate and imminent threats. It provides a valuable precedent for Indian courts to consider in future causation cases.


In conclusion, there are various complexities of criminal causation, particularly when intervening acts by victims are involved. The critique of the objective approach taken by Indian courts underscores the need for a more nuanced, subjective, victim-centric standard. This approach considers the victim’s perspective and circumstances, acknowledging that different situations elicit different reactions. However, one must also recognize the inherent difficulties in applying this standard without clear guidelines, which could lead to unjust outcomes. The proposed solution advocates for a balanced framework that ensures fair adjudication while avoiding excessively high conviction rates. The author has advocated for a subjective approach while deciding the aforementioned nature of the victim’s intervention. This solution has been defended againstcounter-solutions as well. Ultimately, this article aims to provide a coherent and flexible legal framework to better navigate the intricate questions of criminal causation in cases involving intervening acts.


Primary Sources


Royall v R [1991] HCA 27, [18]

R v Williams [1992] 1 WLR 380, 388, 389

R v Pitts (1842) Car & M 284

Govindaswamy v State of Kerala [2016] SCC OnLine SC 939, [15]

Joginder Singh v State of Punjab [1980] 1 SCC 493, 497

Basappa v State AIR [1960] Mys 228, 229

State v Leopold (1929) 110 Conn 55 

Secondary Sources


Sullivan GR, Simester AP, Spencer J, Virgo G, Simester and Sullivan’s Criminal Law: Theory and Doctrine (5th edn, Hart Publishing 2013) 86-103

Journal Articles:

Alan Norrie, ‘A Critique of Criminal Causation’ (1991) 54 MLR 685, 693-695

Eric Colvin, ‘Causation in Criminal Law’ (1989) 1 BLR 255

John E Stannard, ‘Criminal Causation and the Careless Doctor’ (1992) 55 MLR 577-582

Mrinal Satish, ‘Escaping the causation conundrum: the case of Govindasvamy v. State’ (2017) 1(1) Indian Law Review 89, 90, 93

Rebecca Williams, ‘Policy and Principle in Drugs Manslaughter Cases’ (2005) 64 CLJ 66, 70

Stanley Yeo, ‘An Australian Evaluation of Causation in Fright Cases’ (1993) 57 JCL 395-397

(This post has been authored by Aditya Maheshwari, a 1st year BA-LLB (hons.) Student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.)

CITE AS: Aditya Maheshwari, ‘How Intervening Acts Complicate Causation: A Victim-Centric Analysis’ (The Contemporary Law Forum, 21 May 2024) <>date of access.

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