Criminal Law Actus Reus Essay Topics

Law school is… different, and so is the approach to answering problem based questions. The IRAC method will help you structure your exams and essays, so forget everything you currently know about answering questions and take a read!

What does IRAC mean?

  • Issue: identify the issue.
  • Rule: state the rule/law.
  • Analysis: discuss the law in respect to the facts.
  • Conclusion: provide your conclusion.


Don’t be deceived – it’s harder than it looks

It looks pretty simple, right? Don’t get me wrong, the idea behind IRAC is as simple as things can get – the difficulty is in the execution.

An easy way to explain IRAC is to talk about the things that are most likely to trip you up when using it.

Don’t write an introduction

We are taught during high school and most university courses to rehash the facts or situation as part of an introduction for any answer we give.

At law school, a problem based question simply doesn’t need one. Instead, just write down the issue as a question or a statement. For example: “the issue in this situation is whether plaintiff’s title to the property is indefeasible.” That’s it – now move on to the rule section.

I remember writing a short introduction in a problem based assignment (which I thought was different to an exam, for some unknown reason) even when the lecturer told us not to! In my defence it was early on in my first year (fine – second half of my first year).

A problem that many law students face is failing to adapt to the academic environment of law school. It takes time to reverse old habits and realise that an introduction is no longer necessary.

Don’t pad your answer

Answers in law school should be concise and relevant – the IRAC method will assist, but you still need to consider everything you write down and query whether its relevant. Fluff and padding will not help your marks and will not make up for the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Save the extra words for those 7,500 and 10,000 word essays!

Being concise is particularly important in exams when you have time limits to separate students into into credit, distinction and high distinction categories. Expressed bluntly, you can’t bullshit your way through a legal question.

This is enforced by lecturers by imposing low word limits. A 3,000 word assignment might sound like a lot before you start but most people will find themselves at the end scrambling to delete words.

Word limits are also used to identify students who understand the most important concepts and reward them for it. You will always get the most marks if you:

  • can identify the key issues (relevance); and
  • are able to thoroughly consider the issues for each (being concise).

This might mean you need remove any discussion of minor ancillary issues, even if what you wrote is correct.

For example, a 30 mark essay capped at 1500 words might in fact have 40 marks available, depending on what your response is. This generally gives the lecturers some scope when marking papers. However, you would need to write far more than 1500 words to discuss all the issues to get all those marks, which is obviously not allowed.

Write on point and with precision and you will increase your chances to score full marks.

Don’t revisit your answer in your conclusion

Don’t rewrite your answer in your conclusion section. Your conclusion is essentially a “yes” or “no” response to the issue (eg “the plaintiff’s title to the property is not indefeasible”). Similar to the issue section, limit it to one sentence and spend your effort on the far more important analysis section – this is where all the marks lie.

Be flexible with the rule and analysis sections, and structure your answer to help the reader

The ideal question to answer is one where the various issues you need to discus and explain are entirely separate from one another and your structure is literally: issue; rule; analysis; and conclusion (perhaps repeated three or four times). You might get a few of these in an exam, but unfortunately, they are not in abundance!

Most questions, will have overlapping issues and this is where structure becomes very important. For written essays and assignments you will have time to plan this out properly. In exams, it will come down to practice, so make sure you run through as many practice exams as you can to find out the best structure for any particular question (exam topics are frequently repeated so you can figure out what will be on your exam early).

The IRAC method is not for all types of questions

You might have already picked it up, but the IRAC method works best with problem based questions. If you’ve got a “discuss the the advantages and disadvantages of indefeasibility in property law” kind of question, then first of all I feel genuinely sorry for you, and secondly, you will need to find another way to answer this question.

IRAC answer examples

It’s easier to explain this method if by looking at an example IRAC answer. The below examples are very brief and don’t go into much caselaw detail, but they should suffice for a general example.

I have chosen the first one from criminal law because this is usually taught early on in most degrees. The second is in a different post on exam scripts, and is from a key area in contract law.

The words in [square brackets] or in italics are to indicate [structure] or are just general commentary and would not be included in your answer.

Criminal law IRAC example – Murder/manslaughter

[Exam heading] Murder

[Exam heading] Issue

  • Did D commit murder?
  • Can prosecution charge D with murder?

[Exam heading] Law and Analysis

  • [Exam heading] (a) Mens Rea
    • (State the law)
    • (This is the analysis) In this situation,  [there is insufficient evidence of intention]
  • [Exam heading] (b) Actus reus
    • (State the law)
    • (This is the analysis) Here, it is clear that D’s actions were voluntary, and that the act caused the death of V.
    • (Still the analysis) It could be argued that [act] was actually [something else], and therefore should not be considered voluntary. This was argued in [key case], however here, [the other important factor in key case] was not present, which means that any argument from D that actus reus is not made out is unlikely.
    • (I can’t remember much of crim, but usually an exam question will have a factual scenario that plays on the facts of a key case. For example, in this question there might be something in the facts which requires you to discuss how the “voluntary” act is similar or different to a voluntary act in the key case. Refer to it and make a conclusion. If the chief examiner is particularly cruel, they will blend a factual scenario from two key cases, and you will need to refer to both and make a call on what is more applicable.)

[Exam heading] Conclusion

  • D unlikely to be charged with murder. While there is sufficient evidence for actus reus, there is no mens rea.

(You will now want to determine whether D can be charged with a lesser office based on a different mens rea. To make the best use of time, refer back to what you have already written in the murder section.

Just as a warning – only refer back to things in the same answer. Sometimes, different questions in an exam booklet will be marked by different people. They might not have time to skip back to a different question to find something you have written.)

[Exam heading] MANSLAUGHTER

[Exam heading] Issue

  • Can D be charged with manslaughter?

[Exam heading] Law and Analysis

  • [Exam heading] (a) Mens rea
    • The mens rea for manslaughter is… (as I said above, it’s been a looooong time since I studied criminal law. I have no idea what elements should go here. Recklessness?? Also, surely law students learn that this is the “fault element” now?)
    • In this situation… (apply facts)
  • [Exam heading] (b) Actus reus
    • The elements for manslaughter are the same as for murder. These have been discussed above and are present in this situation.

[Exam heading] Conclusion

  • D is likely to be charged with manslaughter as fault and external elements are all present.

(Part of your job is to make life easy for the marker. That’s the great thing about IRAC – it provides an ideal structure to frame your answer around. However, when you don’t need to write much then the structure can feel very forced. If you think your answer is going to look a bit stupid, just put everything in the one paragraph, but make sure you stick to the IRAC structure. See the below paragraph for an example.)

[Alternative manslaughter IRAC section]

(Issue) As murder is unlikely to be found, an alternative charge of manslaughter should be considered. (The following is law and analysis for actus reus) The actus reas for manslaughter is identical to murder, and is therefore present, as discussed above. (Next up, law and analysis for mens rea) However, the mens rea is different. The mens rea for manslaughter is…. [state law, discuss]. (Conclusion) Therefore, it is likely/unlikely that D will be charged with manslaughter.

Contract law IRAC example – termination of contracts

In my post on exam scripts you will find an IRAC example for termination of contracts. It’s from one of my old exam scripts and is a little more detailed than the above example for criminal law.

Want some help with a practice exam question?

If you have a practice exam question that you’re working on and you would like a second set of eyes taking a look, email me a copy of the exam (or upload it using the contact form below) and I’ll see if I can work through it. (I won’t look at any current essay questions you’re working on – speak to your class mates about those.)


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Actus reus and mens rea are the foundations for criminal law, so it’s really important that you get your head around the topic and related issues for when it comes to essays and exams.

Firstly, where the fudge do these two key terms of English law comes from? "Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, which literally means “an act does not make a person guilty unless mind is also guilty”.

It’s been taken that a person is guilty if they are proved to be culpable or blameworthy in both thought and action. That’s the general difference between murder and manslaughter.

You could hit and kill someone whilst driving, but if you didn’t intend to kill them, it’s manslaughter.

If it’s proven that you jumped into your car fully intending to run down some poor victim, then you’re a murderer.

However, there are complications, such as the omission to act, legal causation, intention and recklessness. 

Omission to act

Omission, or failure, to act generally carries no liabilities. That means a person can only be criminally liable where they have performed a positive act.

Let’s use the classic example of person A walking past a drowning person B. Person B can be saved if person A holds their hand. Person A doesn’t hold their hand and person B drowns. Person A is not liable.

However, there are six exceptions to this rule. The first of these is duty arising from a statute. For example, the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 makes omissions culpable by people over the age of 16 failing to look after a child under 16.

For example, if a child is not provided with adequate food or clothing (omission), this is the actus reus of that crime.

The second exemption is duty arising from special relationships. R v Gibbins and Proctor (1918), ruled that a man and his wife were guilty of murder by failing to feed the man’s daughter.

As the woman hated the daughter, this is sufficient enough to make her liable for the crime.

Thirdly, assumption of care is an exception to omission to act. Although statutory law states that parents are no longer liable for their children after the age of 16, common law, particularly, R v Chattaway (1922), imposed a duty of care upon parents where their child is over 16 but continues to reside with them and is a dependent.

The three other exceptions include official, contractual or public duties, duty to avert a danger of one's own making and failure to provide medical treatment.

Legal causation

Causation simply links conduct to a result. Factual causation is established by conducting the “But-for” test. Legal causation is a bit trickier.

The proximate cause rule can be applied. For example, you could argue that if a mechanic didn’t build a car, manslaughter wouldn’t have happened.

But this is a bit of a silly argument isn’t it? Rather, the legally liable cause lies with the one closest to the incident.

Intervening causes can also remove liability. If someone is injured by a gun shot, and then they are struck by lightning in an ambulance, you could argue the shooter is liable using the ‘but-for’ test.

However, legally, the shooter wouldn’t be liable for injuries sustained through the lightning strike.

It has been ruled in R v Cheshire (1991) that medical negligence amounts to a break in the chain of causation, unless it was “so independent” of the defendants act or “so potent” in causing death.


Intention is important because it is the mens rea requirement for serious offences, including murder. There are two types, direct intent and oblique intent.

Direct intent is relatively straightforward and is linked to the defendant’s aim or purpose. Oblique intent is where the defendant did not desire the consequences, but they knew they were certain to occur.

In R v Maloney (1985), the jury were asked to consider two questions: was murder or serious injury a natural consequence of the defendants act?

Did the defendant foresee that consequence as being a natural consequence of their act? If the answer to both are yes, the crime was intentional.


Recklessness was defined in R v Cunningham (1957) as foreseeing that a particular kind of harm may be done, but going on to do it anyway. There is also a second way of detecting recklessness, as outlined in R v Caldwell (1981).

This time, to be reckless was to carry out an act that creates obvious risk or damage and also giving no thought of there possibly being a risk, or in recognising a risk, they go on to do it anyway (#yolo).

And there we have it. Aspects of actus reus and mens rea explored on one handy webpage.

Of course, not everything is covered (so don’t blame us if everything doesn’t go according to plan), and there’s plenty more where all the above came from – namely from Pearson and their Law Express Q&A series!

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