How Do We Justify Imposing Strict Liability for Criminal Offenses

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  • Topic: Criminal law, Mens rea, Actus reus
  • Pages : 6 (2526 words )
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  • Published : April 3, 2012
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How do we justify imposing strict liability for some criminal offences?
Strict liability offences are offences which do not require proof of mens rea. This means that the prosecution only needs to prove that the defendant voluntarily committed a forbidden act without considering if the defendant had the intention. Strict liability is contained in statutes or statutory instruments, and occasionally found in common law. Common law offences of strict liability include criminal libel and blasphemous libel. Also liability is rarely absolute. Most strict liability offences are regulatory and are involved in environmental protection laws, food, health and safety, the sale of alcohol and many more.

It can be said that strict liability offences can lead to harsh decisions and outcomes because; actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, which means an act alone cannot constitute guilt without the proof of a guilty mind. This line of argument is laid down in the case of R v Woolmington where it is established that mens rea is fundamental in criminal law. Ashworth and Blake consider that out of 540 serious offences dealt with in Archbold, 123 had a strict liability element. They comment that if parliament is free to impose strict liability when it wants to then the presumption of innocence rings hollow. There are also many other cases that show that imposing strict liability may cause unjust and harsh decisions, and in many cases it is unclear whether an offence is considered to be a strict liability offence. These cases include; Alphacell Ltd V Woodward, Cundy v Le Cocq, Sherras v de Rutzen, Sweet v Parsley, Lemon and white house v Gay news, B (a minor) v DPP, R v K (2001). However it could be argued that without strict liability there would be a lot more work for the courts to handle and it would cost a lot of money. There would also be no guidelines and regulations for businesses to follow. Also businesses wouldn’t be deterred to commit the offence and sentencing wouldn’t be uniform to an extent. So therefore it can be argued that there is also a need for strict liability and it can be justified by many cases such as, Kirkland v Robinson, Atkinson v Sir Alfred, and Callow v Tilistone, R v Howells.

Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea; an act alone cannot constitute guilt without the proof of a guilty mind. This means that the intention of whether or not the person intended to commit the crime should be considered, as the courts may be punishing an innocent person who didn’t intend to commit the crime. This principle is laid down in R v Woolmington, where the defendant accidently shot his wife. The whole principle in criminal law is that the defendant is innocent till the prosecution finds evidence that they are guilty. This makes it fair and just as a person’s liberty is involved. In the case of Cundy v Le Cocq 1884, the defendant was charged with selling alcohol to a drunken person. The court believed that the defendant didn’t realise that the customer was drunk. However the court held that the offence was a strict liability offence and the defendant was charged. However in the case of Sherras v Rutzen 1895, the defendant sold alcohol to a police officer on duty. However the conviction was quashed even though the sale of alcohol is a strict liability offence. The courts decided that the difference in this case compared to the case of Cundy V Le Cocq was that in Sherras there was nothing the defendant could do as the police officer could have lied either way. However in Cundy the defendant could have observed that the customer was drunk. These two cases show that there is a need for mens rea and strict liability offences are harsh as the defendant was charged for selling alcohol to a drunken person even though the defendant didn’t realise the customer was drunk. If mens rea was considered in this case then the defendant would have been acquitted. In the case of Gammon (Hong Kong) Ltd v Attorney-General of Hong Kong...
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