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What is the Difference Between Intent and Motive?

According to our criminal lawyer in Calgary, the intention is one of the basic elements for making a person liable for a crime, which is commonly contrasted with motive. Though we often use the two terms interchangeably, these are different in the eyes of the law. Many Canadian criminal offences are drafted with the word “purpose” in the offence. When an offence uses the word purpose, that refers to the “desire” or “ultimate objective or goal” of the prohibited act.

However, the purpose of an action is not the same as the “motive”. Motive is what the person induces in the act or the reason or objective for committing the act. Motive is not an essential element, and the prosecution does not have to prove motive. Motive comes first and is what drives the person’s intent. It is the reason and what compels the accused to engage in the prohibited act. Motive is irrelevant when it comes to evidence. However, when the motive is addressed, or evidence is exhibited to demonstrate the accused’s motive, this can be used to clarify the accused’s actions in order to prove the intent element.

In other words, the difference between intention and motive is that intention definitely designates the mental state of the accused, i.e. what’s going on in his or her mind, at the period of the commission of a crime, whereas motive implies the motivation, i.e. what drives a person to do what he or she is doing. In some cases, the intention can be a failure to act, also called an omission. In a case of criminal negligence, where a party who is responsible for providing for the necessities of life fails to feed a child, for example, the intention is the failure to provide food and medical care, whereas the motive may not be at all connected to the intention.

Putting motive aside, proving intent is required in criminal prosecutions. In some cases, an accused may be found not guilty because the intent was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Intent can be described as the willingness to act. There are different types of intent and different ways for the prosecutor to prove intent.

What are the Types of Intent?

Criminal offences can be general intent or specific intent offences.

  • General intent crimes require only a general intention for the act. For example, sexual assault is a general intent offence. If the prosecutor can prove that the accused touched another person for a sexual purpose and the other person did not consent, then the general intent (men’s rea) will be proven. General intent offences do not require the prosecutor to prove that the accused intended to bring about a specific consequence connected to the illegal act.
  • Specific intent crimes require an intent that the accused had actual knowledge of the specified consequences and relates to the intended purpose of the act. The prosecutor must prove the accused intended his or her act and performed the act for a specific purpose. The accused person had to have acted with the desire to achieve a specific purpose. This knowledge is the outcome of complex thought and the foresight of the intended outcome.

How is Intent Proven by the Prosecutor?

Intent is most often inferred when the act is proven, especially in general intent cases. However, other than inference, there are two other ways to prove the intent element of a crime. The first is recklessness, and the other is willful blindness. Recklessness is a legal principle that involves knowledge of danger or risk and persistence in that conduct. It is through this persistence that the prohibited result will occur. Criminal culpability is justified when the accused is conscious of the risk but proceeds anyway.

Willful blindness is a legal principle which arises when a person becomes aware of a need to make an inquiry and ask questions but doesn’t do so in order to avoid knowledge or the truth. He or she would prefer to remain ignorant. Criminal culpability is justified by the accused’s deliberate failings to make inquiries when he or she knows there is a reason to do so.


Intention and proof of the intention are what are needed to prove a crime was committed. Motive explains why the accused performed the act or omission/committed the crime. Motive is the reason for the act and drives the intention.

In every criminal case, the intention of the accused is the first consideration and for a criminal defence lawyer, how the prosecution intends to prove intent is critical. Without proof of intention, the criminal case will fail.  On the other hand, motive does not play a significant role in determining guilt or innocence.

The lawyers at Alberta Legal critically examine the alleged facts and our client’s material in order to determine the likelihood of whether the intent will be proven and how to build a defence so that intent won’t be proven. If you have been charged with a crime, contact our serious lawyers, who defend serious allegations in court every single day.