Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions: HL 23 May 1935

Golden Thread of British Justice – Proof of Intent

The appellant had been convicted of the murder of his wife. She had left him and returned to live with her mother. He went to the house. He said he intended to frighten her that he would kill himself if she did not return. He wired a shotgun to allow this, and wrote a suicide note, but when attempting to show what he intended, the gun went off killing her. He denied intending to harm her. The judge directed the jury ‘The killing of a human being is homicide, however he may be killed, and all homicide is presumed to be malicious and murder, unless the contrary appears from circumstances of alleviation, excuse, or justification. ‘In every charge of murder, the fact of killing being first proved, all the circumstances of accident, necessity, or infirmity are to be satisfactorily proved by the prisoner, unless they arise out of the evidence produced against him; for the law presumeth the fact to have been founded in malice, unless the contrary appeareth.”
Held: The ‘golden thread’ of British justice is that it is for the prosecution to prove an offence against the defendant. ‘Juries are always told that, if conviction there is to be, the prosecution must prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.’ and ‘Throughout the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen, that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt subject to what I have already said as to the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception. If at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt, created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner, as to whether the prisoner killed the deceased with a malicious intention, the prosecution has not made out the case and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal. No matter what the charge or where the trial, the principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained.’ However the rule is subject to exceptions created by statute.
Viscount Sankey LC: ‘If at any period of a trial it was permissible for the judge to rule that the prosecution had established its case and that the onus was shifted on the prisoner to prove that he was not guilty and that unless he discharged that onus the prosecution was entitled to succeed, it would be enabling the judge in such a case to say that the jury must in law find the prisoner guilty and so make the judge decide the case and not the jury, which is not the common law.’


Viscount Sankey LC, Lord Hewart LC, Lord Atkin, Lord Tomlin, and Lord Wright


[1935] AC 462, [1935] UKHL 1, (1935) 5 New Zealand Police Law Reports 492, 104 LJKB 433




Criminal Appeal Act 1907 1 4, Criminal Evidence Act 1898


England and Wales


CitedDaniel MNaghtens Case HL 1843
Daniel M’Naghten suffered from a mental disorder under which he believed that he was being persecuted by various bodies in authority, including the Tory Party. He sought to kill the Tory Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, but shot and killed instead . .
CitedMackalley’s case 1611
If an officer or magistrate is killed when executing a process or preserving the peace, the offence is murder and remains so even if there is some defect in the process being executed, or the arrest was being made at night.
Constables were . .
CitedRex v Greenacre 1837
Once the prosecution has established that one person has died at the hand of another, it is for the defedant to establish by evidence or inference form the circumstances some excuse or mitigation to reduce the charge from murder. . .
CitedRex v Legg 1674
. .
CitedRex v Davies 1913
The consent of the Attorney General was not required to prosecute an offender under the 1901 Act. . .
CitedRex v Stoddart 1909
. .
CitedRex v Oneby 1727
Where A and B have a sudden violent quarrel, and later, after tempers should have cooled, A kills B, that is murder. If A says he will revenge himself on B, or will have his blood, that is express malice. The fact of killing is prima facie murder. . .
CitedRex v Schama; Rex v Abramovitch CCA 1914
Where the defendant was charged with receiving stolen goods well knowing them to be stolen, the onus of proof lies always on the prosecution. Once the prosection has established that the defendant was in possession of goods recently stolen, the jury . .
CitedLawrence v The King PC 1933
Lord Atkin said: ‘[A]n essential principle of our criminal law that the trial for an indictable offence has to be conducted in the presence of the accused; and for this purpose trial means the whole of the proceedings, including sentence.’ . .
CitedRex -v Sanders 1919
. .
CitedRex v Grinberg 1917
. .
CitedRex v Aubrey 1915
. .

Cited by:

CitedGrant v Director of Public Prosecutions Admn 22-Jan-2003
The appellant had been convicted of failing to give a breath test, and of driving with excess alcohol. He had falsely claimed that he had had a drink in the five minutes before being asked to take the test, and said the officer should not have . .
CitedRegina v Derek William Bentley (Deceased) CACD 30-Jul-1998
The defendant had been convicted of murder in 1952, and hung. A court hearing an appeal after many years must apply laws from different eras to different aspects. The law of the offence (of murder) to be applied was that at the time of the offence. . .
CitedGeorge Worme Grenada Today Limited v The Commissioner of Police PC 29-Jan-2004
PC (Grenada) The defendant was editor of a newspaper which carried a story severely defamatory of the prime minister. He was convicted of criminal libel, and appealed.
Held: The appeal was dismissed. The . .
CitedMancini v Director of Public Prosecutions HL 1941
There are exceptional cases to the rule in Woolmington for: ‘offences where onus of proof is specially dealt with by statute’. ‘There is no reason to repeat to the jury the warning as to reasonable doubt again and again, provided that the direction . .
CitedRegina v Lambert HL 5-Jul-2001
Restraint on Interference with Burden of Proof
The defendant had been convicted for possessing drugs found on him in a bag when he was arrested. He denied knowing of them. He was convicted having failed to prove, on a balance of probabilities, that he had not known of the drugs. The case was . .
CitedB (A Minor) v Director of Public Prosecutions HL 23-Feb-2000
Prosecution to prove absence of genuine belief
To convict a defendant under the 1960 Act, the prosecution had the burden of proving the absence of a genuine belief in the defendant’s mind that the victim was 14 or over. The Act itself said nothing about any mental element, so the assumption must . .
CitedMichael Yearwood v The Queen PC 26-Jun-2001
PC (Grenada) The defendant appealed against his conviction for murder. He claimed a misdirection on provocation.
Held: The judge’s direction had been over elaborate, and gave too much weight to the old law. . .
CitedSheldrake v Director of Public Prosecutions; Attorney General’s Reference No 4 of 2002 HL 14-Oct-2004
Appeals were brought complaining as to the apparent reversal of the burden of proof in road traffic cases and in cases under the Terrorism Acts. Was a legal or an evidential burden placed on a defendant?
Held: Lord Bingham of Cornhill said: . .
CitedWang, Regina v HL 10-Feb-2005
The appellant was waiting for a train when his bag was stolen. After a search, the thief tried to deter the appellant from calling the police by suggesting that the bag contained items the appellant should not be carrying. From the bag the appellant . .
CitedRegina v Morgan HL 30-Apr-1975
The defendants appealed against their convictions for rape, denying mens rea and asserting a belief (even if mistaken) that the victim had consented.
Held: For a defence of mistake to succeed, the mistake must have been honestly made and need . .
CitedRegina v Hunt (Richard) HL 1987
The court objected to the insistence on leaving the burden throughout a prosecution on the defendant on the ground that ‘the discharge of an evidential burden proves nothing – it merely raises an issue’. The House emphasised the special nature of . .
CitedClarke v Regina CACD 23-Apr-2008
The defendant appealed his conviction for providing immigration services when not qualified to do so. . .
CitedRegina v Moloney HL 21-Mar-1984
The defendant appealed against his conviction for murder.
Held: The appeal was allowed and a conviction for manslaughter substituted.
Lord Bridge of Harwich discussed the case of Hyam: ‘But looking on their facts at the decided cases . .
CitedSweet v Parsley HL 23-Jan-1969
Mens Rea essential element of statutory Offence
The appellant had been convicted under the Act 1965 of having been concerned in the management of premises used for smoking cannabis. This was a farmhouse which she visited infrequently. The prosecutor had conceded that she was unaware that the . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Leading Case

Updated: 25 November 2022; Ref: scu.179641