Strict liability

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x1. In criminal law, offences of Strict liability are those where liability is conferred simply by carrying out a particular action, or being in a particular place; the prosecution does not have to show an intention to act, or any blameworthy conduct. Most such offences are statutory, rather than in the common law, and aimed at regulation of activities deemed not to be in the public interest. They include offences related to pollution, driving, food hygene, and safety at work.

Justifications for the existence of Strict liability offences may include:

  • they are easier to prosecute, as no mental element need be proved. This is particularly important when the defendant is a corporation;
  • they signal a strong and very clear disapproval of certain acts; this is particularly obvious for offences related, for example, to controlled drugs.

However, courts are reluctant to impose criminal sanctions on people who are easily seen to be morally without blame. Thus there is a strong presumption against a statutory offence being treated as one of Strict liability . For example, in Sweet v parsley (1970) it was held that the phrase 'for the purpose of' in a section of the Dangerous drugs act (1965) created the Mens Rea element of purposiveness. However, the phrases

  • X does Y for the purpose of Z;
  • X had a Y, which was used (by someone other than X) for the purpose of Z;

express somewhat different notions of purposiveness. It could be argued that the wording in the first form expresses that X deliberately does Y, while the second form merely expresses that X had a Y, with no account taken of X's purpose. In this form it is someone other than X who has a purpose. The wording in the Dangerous Drugs Act seems to be more like the second form, which does not really allow X to escape liability because he does not 'purpose' to have Y. This notwithstanding, the court held that the accused could not be convicted because he did not 'purpose' to operate a premises where cannabis was smoked.

On the other hand, in Warner v metropolitan police commissioner (1969), a different approach was adopted. The Drugs prevention of misuse act (1964) makes it an offence to 'possess' certain controlled substances; the House of lords held that 'possess' implies no particular mental element; merely having something about one's person, whatever it is, and however innocent one's mistake as to its nature, constitutes possession.

Accomplices to a Strict liability offense may still have to be shown to have the Mens Rea of being accomplices, that is, they must have the Intention to do the acts of assistance in the crime.

2. In Tort, Strict liability means that the defendant may be held liable to the claimant even in the absence of any identified fault. An important source of statutory Strict liability is the consumer protection act (1987), but the common law has also created torts that border on struct liability. The rule in rylands vfletcher is an example.

UK LAW
Criminal Law