All criminal offences have two elements: (1) the intention or knowledge, and (2) action or conduct. Lawyers often refer to the intention or knowledge as the mens rea of the offence. Not all criminal offences require the offender to have same level of awareness of their wrongful action. Offences are classified as requiring the accused to have acted with either general intent or specific intent.

General Intent Offences

For general intention offences, the mens rea merely relates to performance of the illegal action. These offences do not require the offender to intend to bring about specific consequences that external to the illegal action. The intention required is merely that the accused intended to perform the action in question. The accused need not have intended a specific consequence, nor to have acted for a specific purpose.

Specific Intent Offences

For specific intention offences, the mens relates to the ulterior purpose or actual knowledge of certain consequences.The intention required is that the accused intended to to perform the action and for a specific purpose. The knowledge is the product of complex thought and the foresight of consequences that flow from the action. The accused has to have acted with the desire to achieve a specific consequences, or to have acted for a specific purpose.

Determining if an Offence is One of General Intent or Specific Intent

The courts determine the classification of whether an offence is one of general intent or specific intent by determining the mental element of the offence.This requires the court to statutorily interpret the offence. The presumption is that the offence is one of general intent, unless otherwise stated by the Criminal Code. When the offence provides the individual “willfully” committed the unlawful act, it is likely the offence is one of specific intent. Where the mens rea of the offence still cannot be determined, the court will then consider the importance of the mental element and the social policy underlying the offence.

The importance of the mental element refers to the complexity of the thought and reasoning processes that are required for any given offence.

– Justice Moldaver

This classification is important for a number of reasons. If an offence is one of general intent, the accused would not be able to rely upon self-induced intoxication as a defence. Intoxication short of automatism cannot deprive the accused of the minimal intention required for such offences. As specific intent offence require a heightened mental element, intoxication can be a valid defence. Intoxication short of automatism, but to the point where complex thought and reasoning processes are not possible, can negate the mental element required for specific intent offence.

It is important to consult with a lawyer when criminally charged. A lawyer will readily be able to identify available defences and be able to provide you with the advice you need. If you or a loved one has been charged with a criminal offence, please feel free to contact me for a free initial consultation. I will be be glad to assist you.

Please note that this is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice to you. Legal advice pertaining to your particular situation can only be given by a lawyer who has met with you to obtain all pertinent background information necessary to give you a formal legal opinion.