Bratty v Attorney-General for Northern Ireland

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Citation: Bratty v Attorney-General for Northern Ireland [1843-1860] [1963] AC 386.

This information can be found in the Textbook: Brown et al, Criminal Laws: Materials and Commentary on Criminal Law and Process in New South Wales, (5th edition, Federation Press, 2011), pp. 533-4.


Background facts

  • The Accused [Bratty] strangled the victim to death.
  • He gave evidence that he did not mean to do it, and that he had a ‘certain blackness’ come over him from his psychomotor epilepsy.
  • He submitted a number of arguments, including sane and insane automatism, for which he blamed epilepsy.
    • The appeal is concerned with the fact that the trial judge left only the question of insane automatism to the jury, and not sane automatism.

Legal issues


  • There is a distinction between a normal involuntary act, which is automatism, and an involuntary act brought about by mental illness (the insanity defence/insane automatism).
  • There is a presumption that all acts are voluntary, and the defence will need to provide some evidence in order to argue that an act was involuntary (evidentiary burden). Whether this burden has been satisfied is a matter for the judge and not the jury.
  • If the only evidence which the defence provides for the cause of involuntariness involves 'disease of the mind' (as opposed to something like sleep walking), than that burden is not satisfied, because the issue then is one of insanity (insane automatism) and not (sane) automatism.
    • Disease of the mind means any mental disorder that ‘manifests itself in violence and is prone to recur’.
  • In this case, the only cause argued for the involuntariness of the act was epilepsy, a disease of the mind. Therefore, there was no issue of automatism, but merely of insanity.
  • The defendant loses.


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