The defence of automatism is used to protect the accused from being charged for offences committed while they are unable to control their behaviour due to a ‘disease of the mind’.

For an accused to be found guilty and convicted of a crime, the prosecution must prove at the accused was in full control of their actions and was acting voluntarily. Automatism refers to interferences in normal functioning where a person’s actions can no longer be considered voluntary; however are not the product of duress (being forced by another person) or necessity (a matter of survival). When an offence is committed in the state of automatism, it means the person engaged in the act is not in control of their actions or behaviours.

There are two categories of automatism: sane automatism and insane automatism.

Sane automatism exists when a person’s conduct is caused by a non-recurrent mental malfunction which causes them to lose control over their actions and ability to make decisions. For the defence of sane automatism to be raised, the accused must show that their actions were caused by some external factor, that their actions were unintentional or involuntary, and that their actions were not the result of a mental illness, but rather a non-recurrent mental malfunction.

Furthermore, for this defence to be raised, it must be shown that the non-recurrent mental malfunction was not the result of deliberate intoxication. Examples of sane automatism include offences committed during sleep walking, under the influence of anaesthetic, or actions resulting from the onset of a severe psychological trauma or shock.

The defence of insane automatism refers to actions performed while a ‘disease of the mind’ is present. This can mean a mental illness, disorder, or change in functioning caused by a disease which negatively impacts the ability of the accused to act voluntarily.

When this defence is raised, the defendant must show that they were suffering from a ‘disease of the mind’ at the time of the act, and that the due to this illness or disease, the accused did not comprehend the wrongful nature of what they were doing.

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