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Automatism is where a person’s otherwise criminal conduct was the result of factors external to their control, causing them to act involuntarily.

An example is where a person engages in what would otherwise amount to an assault while sleepwalking or having an epileptic fit, or where he or she experiences significant trauma causing them to ‘black out’ and having no conscious control over their actions.

Where evidence of automatism is raised, the onus shifts to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defence does not apply in the circumstances.

The defendant is entitled to a finding of not guilty if the prosecution is unable to do this.

For the defence to be triggered, some evidence must be raised of the following:

1. Some ‘external factor’ caused you to act that way you did

There was some ‘external factor’ that was the sole cause of your actions.

You will not be able to argue automatism where your actions were self-induced – for example, where you deliberately took more than the prescribed amount of medication and suffered a bad reaction.

It is important to note that automatism will also not be made out where an underlying mental illness caused your actions. In these cases, you may be found not guilty on the basis of mental illness – which is a separate and distinct defence.

2. Your actions were involuntary and unintentional

You must show that your actions were involuntary and unintentional; that is, your actions were unwilled and uncontrollable, for example, where you experience a spasm, reflex or a fit.

3. That you were not suffering from a mental illness at the time of the offence

If you argue automatism, it is important to establish that you were not suffering from a mental illness which caused your actions. This is because if you are found ‘not guilty on the basis of mental illness,’ the court may order that you spend time in a psychiatric hospital.

Generally, courts will accept an argument of automatism where an ordinary person would have ‘cracked under the pressure’ in the same way as you did, and it is unlikely that the episode will recur.

You will be able to present medical evidence of your condition in court to support your argument of automatism.

If you raise the defence of automatism, the prosecution will then have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were not suffering from automatism, or that you were instead suffering from a mental illness at the time of the offence.

If your defence is accepted in court, you will be found ‘not guilty.’

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