legal cause | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Legal cause, also known as proximate cause, is a concept in criminal law that refers to the relationship between the defendant’s actions and the resulting harm or injury.

The heart of any criminal case is the question of guilt. Did the defendant’s actions lead to harm or injury? If yes, were they directly and foreseeably responsible for it? These are the questions that legal cause aims to answer.

The prosecution’s job is to prove legal cause. They have to show that the defendant’s behavior directly resulted in the injury or harm. They also have to prove that anyone could have reasonably predicted this outcome.

Cause-in-Fact and Proximate Cause: The Two Components

Legal cause is split into two parts: cause-in-fact and proximate cause. Each serves a unique purpose in understanding how a defendant’s actions resulted in harm or injury.

Cause-in-fact is the direct relationship between what the defendant did and the resulting harm. If a driver speeds through a red light and hits a pedestrian, the speeding and reckless driving are the cause-in-fact of the pedestrian’s injury.

On the other hand, proximate cause refers to legal and policy reasons that limit how much a defendant can be blamed for a specific harm. The idea is to prevent individuals from being unfairly held responsible for unlikely or unforeseeable consequences of their actions.

Establishing Proximate Cause

To demonstrate proximate cause, the prosecution must show that the harm suffered by the victim was a predictable result of the defendant’s actions. They also need to prove that there were no intervening causes disrupting the chain of events leading from the defendant’s actions to the harm.

Intervening causes could be actions by other people or unforeseen natural events. For instance, if a reckless driver speeds through a red light, but an earthquake causes a building to collapse onto the pedestrian before the driver reaches them, the earthquake is an intervening cause.

The Role of Legal Cause in Determining Criminal Liability

In criminal law, proving legal cause is a key step in deciding a defendant’s guilt. If the prosecution successfully proves that the defendant’s actions were directly and foreseeably responsible for the victim’s injury, then the defendant may be held accountable.

The Importance of Legal Cause

Why is legal cause important? It helps to ensure that only those truly responsible for a crime are held accountable. It separates the guilty from the unlucky, and it helps judges and juries determine who should bear the burden of a crime.

In summary, legal cause is a foundational concept in criminal law that links a defendant’s actions to a resulting harm or injury. By establishing cause-in-fact and proximate cause, the prosecution can argue for a defendant’s guilt. But remember, just as it’s important to hold people accountable for their actions, it’s also crucial to ensure that people are not held responsible for harms they did not cause. That’s why the concept of legal cause is so important.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/29/2023

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