Briefly explain the meaning of, and reasons for, strict liability. For strict liability offences it can be said that the prosecution does not have to prove the existence of mens rea for one or more of the elements of the actus reus of the offence.
It is often said that no mens rea is needed for strict liability offences. This is probably an over simplification. A more complete answer would be that the prosecution does not have to prove the existence of mens rea for one or more of the elements of the actus reus of the offence.
Ordinarily the criminal law is concerned with blame worthiness. There are various levels of mens rea or blameworthiness. Some offences are more serious than others and, as a general rule, the more serious the offence the higher the level of mens rea required such as ‘intention’ or‘recklessness’. This is related to the consequences of conviction and again, as a general rule, the more serious the offence – the greater the punishment.
In effect, it is possible to be convicted of a strict liability offence without any degree of fault. The defendant may not have acted deliberately or in any way to bring about the state of affairs. It may be enough that the situation has arisen.
The case of Prince 1875 is a good example of this and, whilst the legal principles behind the decision have now been criticised as a result of B v DPP (2000), it is often cited as an example of the no fault principle. In this case Prince was charged with an offence under S.55 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. He was charged with unlawfully taking an unmarried girl under the age of 16 out of the possession of her parents. He was convicted despite the fact that she looked much older than her actual 13 years and had led Prince to believe she was 18. The Act did not include the words ‘knowingly’ or ‘unknowingly’ and so the court held that liability arose when the necessary act was committed.
In most cases it is usually obvious as to whether the offence is a strict liability one or not. However, this is not always the case and the courts may have to make a ruling if it is not clearly stated to be a strict liability offence by Parliament. The House of Lords have made some important rulings in this area of the law. These rulings serve as a timely reminder that there is a common law presumption of the need for mens rea for criminal liability to be proved.
In Sweet v Parsley 1970, a teacher who leased a farmhouse near Oxford rented the accommodation to students. The students participated in the use of ‘soft’ drugs and the defendant was charged with and convicted of, being responsible for the management of premises which were being used in connection with the use of illegal substances under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1965. As one might expect, bearing in mind the nature of her job, she appealed against the conviction on the basis that the Act was silent on the matter of mens rea but that the prosecution had not done anything to override the common law presumption. Her appeal failed in the Divisional Court and the case went to the House of Lords, where Lord Reid made his speech in which he was clearly able to distinguish between regulatory offences and ‘truly criminal acts’.
Lord Reid went on to explain that for regulatory offences he had no problem with the imposition of strict liability, but there was a strong presumption in law of mens rea for the truly criminal type of offence. The defendant’s conviction was therefore quashed. As a direct result of this ruling theDangerous Drugs Act was replaced by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 . This latter Act now embraces the thrust of Lord Reid’s speech. The corresponding part of the Act, under which Sweet was originally charged, now contains the requirement of knowledge before liability can be imposed. The House of Lords took the opportunity to follow and, in effect, reinforce the view of what the law should be in the case of B (a minor) v DPP 2000. The House of...
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