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Criminal Law Formative Essay: Case Study of Verbal Abuse

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The case of Dhaliwal [2006] illustrates a woman who took her own life after a series of verbal abuse from her husband. This case underwent a series of trials until the court eventually concluded that the defendant be declared not guilty. As a result, I will be exploring whether it is possible in law for a defendant to cause another to commit suicide and if it should be. I would agree that a Defendant can cause another individual to commit suicide. However, it can legally be proven otherwise which can explain the court’s conclusion. The question of whether it should be possible in law questions the extent and impact of morality in law. All of these I will be discussing in the subsequent essay with the case of Dhaliwal [2006].

Over the years, the law has consistently proven that with a convincing argument, what is initially thought of as guilty can be proven innocent. In law, there is an unending list of what is considered before concluding on a verdict. The question posed above is if “it is possible in law for the D to cause another to commit suicide”. This brings us to the term causation, which is ‘a causal link between D’s conduct and that result’ There are two types of causation, factual and legal causation. Using the factual causation, one could argue that it is possible in law for the D to commit suicide. Factual causation uses the ‘but-for’ test, which is where “the court asks ‘but-for’ the defendant’s conduct, would the prohibited consequence have occurred.”[footnoteRef:1] The ‘but-for’ test can be seen in the case of White, where the defendant put poison in his mother’s drink intending to kill her. She died shortly after but not as a result of the poison. Therefore, but-for the poison, she would have still died. In the case of Dhaliwal, the ‘but-for’ test would apply. But-for Dhaliwal’s verbal abuse would his wife have Killed herself? The probable result is no, she wouldn’t have. It is fair to say, we are not given proper information on the victim’s mental state when she killed herself, and if there was any other burden that could have driven her to take her own life. Nonetheless, from the information we have, where the defendant’s verbal abuse seems to be the only form of provocation, the ‘but-for’ test is answered in the negative, therefore factual causation is established. [1: Lucid Law, “Causation in Criminal Law”]

With this case, it can be argued that there could have been Oblique intention and a lot of the time, there could be ‘oblique intention’ with suicide cases. This is where, [footnoteRef:2]“D intends an actus reus requirement (whether circumstance or result) ‘obliquely’ where it is: (a) virtually certain to arise; (b) she recognizes that it is virtually certain, and (c) the jury finds that this recognition amounts to an intention.’ The leading case in oblique intention is Woollin, where the defendant out of anger threw his baby against a wall causing the baby’s death. Concerning the case of Dhaliwal, we could argue that it was virtually certain that the defendant’s verbal abuse would result in his wife killing herself, in other words, a foreseeable consequence. In a situation where one repeatedly provokes another individual, could it not be reasonable to say that constant provocation could consequently cause the victim to react? With that in mind, one could argue that Dhaliwal was subconsciously aware that constantly provoking his wife could subsequently push her to the wall, leaving her with few options, questioning her value and importance in life, making suicide the last resort for her. We could also argue that oblique intention is a method used against victims to keep the hands of the defendant clean from murder in literal terms. Manipulating the victim to perform the actus reus intended by the defendant could be a convenient way to avoid taking any blame for their murder. [2: John Child and David Ormerod, “Essentials of Criminal Law”.]

Recklessness is also a term of mens rea, [footnoteRef:3]where the defendant foresees that particular consequence may occur and proceeds with the given conduct, not caring whether those consequences occur or not. In the case of Dhaliwal, the defendant could have foreseen that his wife would eventually kill herself out of frustration and depression but continued anyway. We are not given much information on the relationship the defendant had with his wife. We are not aware if he hated his wife or if he felt she was a burden to their marriage. We are not aware of the exact words he ever used against his wife. We are not aware if he knew of his wife’s insecurities and used exactly that against her, we are not aware if he knew how self-conscious she was. However, it is fair to conclude that this being a marriage, the defendant should know enough about his wife considering they have been living with each other for some years. Hence, could we conclude that the defendant did know that his wife could have been suicidal but continued to provoke her regardless? The relationship between the victim and the defendant is quite closely knit for the defendant to not recognize any suicidal signs, depression or loss of self-worth resulting from his actions and words. [3: John Child and David Ormerod, “Essentials of Criminal Law”.]

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Criminal negligence is when the defendant did not foresee that the particular consequence would flow from his actions, but a reasonable person, in the same circumstance, would have foreseen the consequences. In a reasonable scenario, it would logically add up that continuous verbal abuse could potentially cause an individual to take matters into their own hands. It is a major issue today occurring in places such as schools, where one child is bullied by one or more students and forced to commit suicide. The defendant may not necessarily foresee the victim committing suicide, but does this make the actions of the defendant right? Sometimes, we don’t expect certain things playing out the way they do, but does this mean we do not take responsibility for our actions? I think the defendant should be attributed to some amount of blame for the death of the victim using this Criminal negligence. [4: John Child and David Ormerod, “Essentials of Criminal Law”.]

On the contrary, one could argue that the defendant cannot cause another suicide. The case of Dhaliwal was concluded by the court as not guilty. And indeed in law, many other routes that could help one arrive at this conclusion. Earlier, I spoke on one type of causation. To help further my point, I will use the second type of causation, legal causation. [footnoteRef:5]“Legal causation justifies the imposition of criminal liability by finding that the defendant is culpable for the consequences which occurred as a result of his/her actions. This involves showing that the chain of events linking the defendant’s conduct and the consequences remain unbroken’ Factual causation usually is a start, with simpler cases especially, but with more complicated cases such as the case of Dhaliwal, legal causation is more appropriate. By using legal causation, our previous argument with factual causation is hence dismissed concerning Dhaliwal’s case. There is a clear break of causation where the victim takes her own life, and the actions of the defendant can no longer be directly linked to the victim’s death. A popular case where legal causation is present is the R v Kennedy case. The victim was supplied with drugs, this victim was reasonable and voluntarily took the drugs which ended his life. The mere fact that the victim was reasonable and able to make valid and sensible decisions equates to the break-in causation. Hence, just as the case with Dhaliwal, the victim was believed to have been reasonable and voluntarily killed herself, hence a break in causation. This point expresses the importance and the fact that every individual possesses free will. The ability to do things voluntarily and freely and face whatever consequences may occur. Just as John Stuart Mill describes the harm principle in his book, ‘On Liberty’, [footnoteRef:6]“is the idea that each individual has the right to act as he/she wants as long as these actions do not harm others.” That is to say that the victim choosing to kill herself is completely voluntary, so to what extent can we blame the defendant for the consequence? [5: Lucid Law, “Causation in Criminal Law”] [6: Alla Zaykova, “Mill’s Liberty Principle”, Midnight Media Musings,]

Where this may fail to apply would be if the victim had been faced with extreme provocation, were, [footnoteRef:7]“there is any evidence that the act causing death was in response to extreme provocation the onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the act causing death was” justifiable. The victim did not act immediately, meaning she was reasonable when she killed herself, she could have followed another path but did not. Had she acted immediately and impulsively, then one can say that she had acted under extreme provocation. Where she has been told something extremely sensitive to trigger her emotions, forcing her to lose all ability to think clearly. If this were the case, one can argue that the victim was not reasonable at that moment and did not make a voluntary decision to kill herself, hence keeping the chain of causation in place. If this were the case, the defendant could in law cause another to commit suicide. [7: “Provocation/Extreme Provocation”,]

I have argued both sides and concluded that in law, nothing can be Black or white. I believe the defendant can cause another to commit suicide, and I believe if argued harder, the court could have come to a different conclusion in the case of R v Dhaliwal. A lot of verdict’s in Law are dependent on certain situations. Had the victim reacted immediately after the defendant’s actions, he could have been declared guilty because there would be a direct link between his actions and her death via extreme provocation. In conclusion, I do believe that it is possible in law for a defendant to cause another to commit suicide. To answer the question of if it should be possible, I think that has a lot to do with Law and morality. Should we blame someone else for someone else’s actions against themselves? Every individual should be allowed to make decisions concerning themselves freely, so to what extent can one be blamed for another committing suicide? Nonetheless, we are aware that some people are vindictive in their ways and intentionally make the lives of others so unbearable that they are left with no other option but to end their life. I believe in suicide cases, the fight is no longer between the defendant and the victim, but the loved ones of the defendant. One may not have physically caused harm to the victim but has caused harm to the people the victim has left behind. Therefore, the defendant is responsible for whatever harm he may have put them in through the victim.


  1. Lucid Law, “Causation in Criminal Law”
  2. John Child and David Ormerod, “Essentials of Criminal Law”.
  3. Alla Zaykova, “Mill’s Liberty Principle”, Midnight Media Musings,
  4. “Provocation/Extreme Provocation”,
  5. R v White [1910] 2 KB 124
  6. R v Woollin [1999]
  7. The case of Dhaliwal [2006]

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