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Citation: Falconer (1990) 171 CLR 30.

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. 535-8.


Background facts

  • The Defendant [Falconer] suffered 30 years of abuse at the hands of her husband, the deceased.
  • After another night of sexual abuse, the Defendant killed her husband.
  • According to the Defendant, there was a complete blank in her memory, until she woke up with a gun next to her, the deceased dead.
    • During the trial, evidence of psychiatrists to support sane automatism was disallowed by the judge.

Legal issues

  • Automatism Defence
    • Whether acts committed because of an external psychological factor are classified as insane or sane automatism.
    • Formulating tests for sane/insane automatism.
    • Whether evidence of psychiatrists should be allowed to examine sane automatism.


Toohey J:

  • A person will not be criminally responsible for an act or omission which occurred independently of the will (commited in a 'dissociative state'). This can often be caused by an external psychological factor (a 'psychological blow').
  • There is a distinction between actions of a sound mind affected by an external psychological blow as opposed to those of an unsound mind (ie, affected by a 'disease of the mind' as per M'Naghten's Case):
    • Actions of an unsound mind are still voluntary acts. They are, however, governed by the rules of the insanity defence and result in a special verdict.
    • Actions of a sound mind affected by an external psychological blow are not voluntary acts. Since there is no voluntariness, they will result in an outright acquittal.
  • The procedure for sane/insane automatism is as follows:
    1. The prosecution needs to prove voluntariness. If voluntariness cannot be proved, there is an outright acquittal.
      • Acts brought about by sound mind due to a psychological blow are not voluntary.
      • Acts brought about by an unsound mind are voluntary (but will be subject to insanity below).
    2. If voluntariness is proven, it is still open to argue that the actions were due to to insanity (insane automatism - actions of a unsound mind).
      • If insanity is proven - special verdict of not guilty by mental illness (indefinite detainment).
      • If not - conviction.
  • In this case, the evidence of the psychiatrists was relevant even to the defence of sane automatism - because the Defendant sought to argue that due to an external psychological factor, she was acting in a dissociative state (as opposed to suffering from a mental illness).
  • Defendant wins, new trial ordered.


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