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  • Writer's pictureLegal Outreach Project

Criminal Law: Insights and Module Overview

Updated: Mar 4

Marcel Hui is a first year Law student from Hong Kong attending King’s College London. Although he has no clear career plans at the moment, he finds the study of law an exhilarating task. In his post below, he discusses what studying criminal law is like and offers his own personal tips.


You’re in for an adventure!

When people talk about criminal law, they think of opulent courtrooms, robes and wigs, gruesome murders and criminal masterminds. Whilst these conjectures aren’t necessarily inaccurate, they are but a tip of the iceberg. Criminal law in action is a lot more fun and exciting than anything I could ever have imagined. From cannibalism in the middle of the Atlantic to vengeful Sergeants in the Iraq war, dangerous horse carriage drivers in Victorian London to devout Jehovah’s witnesses in blood transfusion surgeries, the law of crime is never boring, never standing still and never fails to surprise. Below, I shall go through what to expect in your study of criminal law and what I wish to have known before jumping into such extraordinarily thought-provoking an adventure.

What is criminal law really about?

Perhaps the easier question to start with is what criminal law isn’t about. Criminal law isn’t about The Silence of the Lambs, that belongs to criminology; Nor is it about Sherlockian crime solving, for that belongs to the realm of criminal investigation and; No, it’s got nothing to do with those secondary school essays on whether or not capital punishment should be abolished for that is concerned by human rights law. What we are left with in criminal law is the question of what is and isn’t criminal, and what punishment is available upon conviction. It’s as simple as that. And then again there’s this occasional question of whether what is ought to be, something which should have been left in the realm of jurisprudence but which you will stumble upon nonetheless.

I understand that this may seem rather vague, so here I’ve included a problem question by way of illustration. Please comment below to share your thoughts on this. Suppose X is a robber who wishes to kill A, a traveller who’s been stranded in a desert for days. When A falls asleep, X secretly puts poison into A’s water bottle from which he knows A will drink. B, A’s travel companion, spots this at the corner of his eye and therefore pours all the water away despite knowing as a virtual certainty that A would then die of thirst. Also, he does not intend to share his water even when the circumstances grow dire. After a few days, as expected, A dies of thirst. Who then, is the murderer? Is it X? I mean, after all, it is he who wanted to kill A by putting poison into his drink. And then again, A didn’t really die of poisoning, he died of thirst. Can then be his death attributable to X’s initial poisoning? Moreover, does it matter that A and B would both die anyway in so vast a desert with so little water? What if we change the facts a little? What if the amount of poison put into the drink wasn’t enough to kill? What if B wasn’t aware of X’s poisoning and simply wanted to murder his companion by emptying his bottle? What if B greedily drank from A’s bottle and died instead? Would these change your answer to the question? Even now, halfway through the first semester, I cannot give you a definite answer. Nor may I ever be able to. Thing is, criminal law baffles, and that’s exactly what makes it so interesting to study and learn about.

What you should know before applying

Whilst this may seem all new to you, and whilst you may have had heard the horror stories about studying law, criminal law really isn’t that scary and it’s definitely not boring. Contrary to common belief, you won’t need a photographic memory and an insatiable thirst for reading to excel in criminal law. What you will instead need if you wish to cut above the rest is good sense, an eye for detail and, above all, love of what you do. Anything asides those you will acquire in the subsequent three years of reading, lectures, tutorials and study so don’t panic.

Another thing which deters students from applying to law is the perceived amount of reading that has to be done. Whilst I am in no way suggesting that there isn’t much reading to do, the actual amount of reading isn’t anywhere as unbearable as I would have thought. Indeed, you might be intimidated by the huge list of cases and statutes with which you must familiarise. Don’t be. Oftentimes as you soon shall see, judgments, especially the old ones, are riddled with irrelevancies and long-winded evaluations of unrelated jurisprudence. The crucial skill which you will acquire in law school is the ability to separate between relevant and irrelevant, important and unimportant – To sift gold from sand. In many cases, a very important legal doctrine is being established but because you focus your mind on all the minute details: The defendant’s age, the date on which the crime occurred, the procedural history etc., you miss the forest for the trees. Once you’ve mastered the art of reading law cases, you’ll find the workload much more manageable and enjoyable (strange way to describe workload but anyways).

An overview of the criminal law course

If you’re still reading it means you’re seriously considering to study law. In that case, do continue reading. Here, I shall give a brief overview as to how the criminal law course is structured in most universities followed by some of my own tips.

If you’ve been doing some pre-reading on criminal law, one of the first Latin phrases that you will come across is “Actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”. This phrase is broadly translated to “the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty”, which means that a person cannot be guilty of a crime unless two elements are established: the actus reus (guilty act) and the mens rea (guilty mind). (As an aside, please do not be intimidated by the Latin phrases, you don’t actually need much knowledge of Latin to survive law school.) Normally, the criminal law course begins here. In this stage of the course, you will learn about legal causation, intervening acts, different states of mind and the legal meaning of intention.

Then, you will move on to investigate the major offences one by one, usually kicking off with the king of all crimes – murder. Other offences which you will have to study are homicide, sexual offences, non-fatal offences against the person, theft and fraud. At the same time, you will learn about inchoate offences, that is, offences which have not been completed. You will also learn about the liability of employers for the acts of their employees (vicarious and corporate liability), accessories to crime (secondary participation) as well as different forms of liabilities (strict and constructive liability). Finally, this part of the course will end with an overview of the legal excuses (defences) which are available in general and for specific crimes.

Ultimately, you will engage with the question of what the law ought to be. Here, you shall explore the theories expounded by the likes of John Stuart Mill, HLA Hart and Ronald Dworkin. Personally, I find this part of the course most confusing but also the most intellectually rewarding. To many, the exploration of deep philosophical questions seems to be a tedious exercise far removed from reality (at least that was what I thought before starting) but in fact, it is a tremendously interesting task that has every relevance to our real world. An interesting question to kickstart your journey in jurisprudence is as follows: Should victimless crimes be punished?

So that’s it for now I suppose

Hopefully, reading this has been not only a reassurance, but also a source of motivation for your journey ahead. In short, the criminal law is a wonderful concoction of bizarre stories, strange characters and odd legal rules. If you will, step forward and begin your trip of a lifetime. It won’t be calm; it won’t be easy but I tell you what it would be – Absolutely fantastic. Good luck!

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