Davies v Director of Public Prosecutions: HL 1954

Half a dozen youths engaged in a fist fight with another group, but one of their number suddenly produced a knife and stabbed one of their opponents to death. One of the prosecution witnesses was a youth named Lawson. He gave evidence of an oral admission by the appellant after the event. One of the grounds of appeal was that the judge ought to have given the jury a warning that Lawson could be regarded as an accomplice, and therefore was someone whose evidence required to be treated with special caution. Lawson admitted being involved in the fight at some stage, but he denied all knowledge of a knife and there was no evidence that he was present when it was produced. He was initially charged with murder, but no evidence was offered against him.
Held: The others on his side who did not know that he had the knife, were not parties to its use and were not guilty of murder or manslaughter.
The House rejected the argument that an accomplice warning was required.
Lord Simonds defined what was meant by ‘accomplice’: ‘There is in the authorities no formal definition of the term ‘accomplice’; and your Lordships are forced to deduce a meaning for the word from cases in which X,Y and Z have been held to be, or held liable to be treated as accomplices. On the case it would appear that the following persons, if called as witnesses for the prosecution, have been treated as falling within the category:-
(1) On any view, persons who are participes criminis in respect of the actual crime charged, whether as principals or accessories before or after the fact (in felonies) or persons committing procuring or aiding and abetting (in the case of misdemeanours). This is surely the natural and primary meaning of the term ‘accomplice’. But in two cases, persons falling strictly outside the ambit of this category have, in particular decisions, been held to be accomplices for the purpose of the rule: viz:
(2) Receivers have been held to be accomplices of the thieves from whom they receive goods on a trial of the latter for larceny (Rex v Jennings (1912) 7 Cr App R 242; Rex v Dixon (1925) 19 Cr App R. 36)
(3) When X has been charged with a specific offence on a particular occasion, and evidence is admissible, and has been admitted, of having been committed crimes of this identical type on another occasion, as proving system and intent and negativing accidents; in such cases the court has held that in relation to such other similar offences, if evidence of them were given by parties to them, the evidence of such other parties should not be left to the jury without a warning that it is dangerous to accept it without corroboration. (Rex v Farid 91945) 30 Cr. App. R. 168)
In both of these cases (2) and (3) a person not a party or not necessarily a party to the substantive crime charged was treated as an accomplice for the purpose of the requirement of warning. (I say ‘not necessarily’ to cover the case of receivers. A receiver may on the facts of a particular case have procured the theft, or aided and abetted it, or may have helped to shield the thief from justice. But he can be a receiver without doing any of these things.) The primary meaning of the term ‘accomplice,’ then, has been extended to embrace these two anomalous cases. In each case there are special circumstances to justify or at least excuse the extension. A receiver is not only committing a crime intimately allied in character with that of theft: he could not commit the crime of receiving at all without the crime of theft having preceded it. The two crimes are in a relationship of ‘one-sided dependence.’ In the case of ‘system,’ the requirement of warning within the special field of similar crimes committed is a logical application within that collateral field of the general principle, though it involves a warning as to the evidence of persons not accomplices to the substantive crime charged’.
Lord Simonds continued: ‘My Lords, I have tried to define the term ‘accomplice.’ The branch of the definition relevant to this case is that which covers ‘participes criminis’ in respect of the actual crime charged, ‘whether as principals or accessories before or after the fact.’ But, it may reasonably be asked, who is to decide, or how is it to be decided, whether a particular witness was a ‘particeps criminis’ in the case in hand? In many or most cases this question answers itself, or, to be more exact, is answered by the witness in question himself, by confessing to participation, by pleading guilty to it, or by being convicted of it. But it is indisputable that there are witnesses outside these straightforward categories, in respect of whom the answer has to be sought elsewhere. The witnesses concerned may never have confessed, or may never have been arraigned or put on trial, in respect of the crime involved. Such cases fall into two classes. In the first, the judge can properly rule that there is no evidence that the witness was, what I will, for short, call a participant. The present case, in my view, happens to fall within this class, and can be decided on that narrow ground. But there are other cases within this field in which there is evidence on which a reasonable jury could find that a witness was a ‘participant.’ In such a case the issue of ‘accomplice vel non’ is for the jury’s decision: and a judge should direct them that if they consider on the evidence that the witness was an accomplice, it is dangerous for them to act on his evidence unless corroborated: though it is competent for them to do so if, after that warning, they still think fit to do so.’

Lord Simonds LC
[1954] CLY 700, [1954] 1 All ER 507, [1954] AC 378, (1854) 38 Cr App R 11, [1954] 2 WLR 343
England and Wales
Cited by:
AppliedChan Wing-Siu v The Queen PC 21-Jun-1984
The appellant and co-accused were charged with murder. They said they had gone to meet the deceased to collect a debt, but had been attacked with a knife by the deceased. Two of the three had knives and knew of the other knife.
Held: All were . .
ExplainedRegina v Beck CACD 1982
The defendant complained that the judge had failed to direct the jury about the dangers of relying upon the evidence of witnesses who, though not co-defendants, had their own conflicting interests. They also said that corroborative evidence should . .
CitedRahman and Others, Regina v HL 2-Jul-2008
The defendants appealed against their convictions for murder. None had themselves inflicted any violence, but were convicted as part of a joint enterprise. They said they had not known that the principal carried a knife. They said that the evidence . .
CitedKrishna v The State PC 6-Jul-2011
(Trinidad and Tobago) The applicant appealed against his conviction for murder, complaining as to the way a former co-accused had been allowed to give evidence and the admission of a confession, saying that he had been beaten by police officers.
CitedJogee and Ruddock (Jamaica) v The Queen SC 18-Feb-2016
Joint Enterprise Murder
The two defendants appealed against their convictions (one in Jamaica) for murder, under the law of joint enterprise. Each had been an accessory when their accomplice killed a victim with a knife. The judge in Jogee had directed the jury that he . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Updated: 20 December 2021; Ref: scu.181015