Woolmington v DPP

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Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.svg
Court House of Lords
Decided 23 May 1935
Citation(s) [1935] UKHL 1, [1935] AC 462, (1936) 25 Cr App R 72
Legislation cited Criminal Appeal Act 1907 s. 1
Criminal Appeal Act 1907 s. 4
Criminal Evidence Act 1898
Court membership
Judge(s) sitting Viscount Sankey, Lord Hewart. Lord Atkin, Lord Tomlin, Lord Wright
Burden of proof, Intention, Jury directions, Murder

Woolmington v DPP [1935] AC 462 is a landmark House of Lords case, where the presumption of innocence was first articulated in the Commonwealth.


Reginald Woolmington was a 21-year-old farm labourer from Castleton, Dorset. On November 22, 1934, three months after his marriage to 17-year-old Violet Kathleen Woolmington, his wife left him and went to live with her mother. On December 10 Woolmington stole a double-barrelled shotgun and cartridges from his employer, sawed off the barrel, throwing it into a brook, and then bicycled over to his mother-in-law's house where he shot and killed Violet. He was arrested on January 23 the following year and charged with the wilful murder of his wife.

Woolmington claimed he did not intend to kill her. He wanted to win her back so he planned to scare her by threatening to kill himself if she did not come back. While questioning her about returning, he attempted to show her the gun that he was to use to kill himself. By accident, the gun went off shooting Violet in the heart.

At the Bristol Assizes, Swift J ruled that the case was so strong against Woolmington that the burden of proof was on him to show that the shooting was accidental. At trial the jury deliberated for 69 minutes. On February 14, 1935 Woolmington was convicted and sentenced to death.

On appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal, Woolmington argued that the trial judge misdirected the jury. Lord Justice Avory refused leave to appeal, relying on a passage of Foster's Crown Law (1762):

"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, until the contrary appeareth. And very right it is, that the law should so presume. The defendant in this instance standeth upon just the same foot that every other defendant doth: the matters tending to justify, excuse, or alleviate, must appear in evidence before he can avail himself of them."

The Attorney-General (Sir Thomas Inskip) then gave his fiat allowing the case to be appealed to the House of Lords.


The issue brought to the House of Lords was whether the statement of law in Foster's Crown Law was correct when it said that if a death occurred, it is presumed to be murder unless proved otherwise.

Delivering the judgment for a unanimous Court, Viscount Sankey made his famous "Golden thread" speech:

"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... 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... 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."

The conviction was quashed, and Woolmington was acquitted. He was released three days before his scheduled execution date.

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