Strict liability (criminal)

In criminal law, strict liability is liability for which mens rea (Latin for "guilty mind") does not have to be proven in relation to one or more elements comprising the actus reus (Latin for "guilty act") although intention, recklessness or knowledge may be required in relation to other elements of the offense. The liability is said to be strict because defendants will be convicted even though they were genuinely ignorant of one or more factors that made their acts or omissions criminal. The defendants may therefore not be culpable in any real way, i.e. there is not even criminal negligence, the least blameworthy level of mens rea.

Strict liability laws were created in the 19th century to improve working and safety standards in factories. Needing to prove mens reas on the part of the factory owners was very difficult and resulted in very few prosecutions. The creation of strict liability offenses meant that convictions were increased. Common strict liability offenses today include the selling of alcohol to underage persons.

These laws are applied either in regulatory offenses enforcing social behaviour where minimal stigma attaches to a person upon conviction, or where society is concerned with the prevention of harm, and wishes to maximise the deterrent value of the offense. The imposition of strict liability may operate very unfairly in individual cases. For example, in Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Storkwain,[1] a pharmacist supplied drugs to a patient who presented a forged doctor's prescription, but was convicted even though the House of Lords accepted that the pharmacist was blameless. The justification is that the misuse of drugs is a grave social evil and pharmacists should be encouraged to take even unreasonable care to verify prescriptions before supplying drugs. Similarly, where liability is imputed or attributed to another through vicarious liability or corporate liability, the effect of that imputation may be strict liability albeit that, in some cases, the accused will have a mens rea imputed and so, in theory, will be as culpable as the actual wrongdoer.

In various jurisdictions


The Australian Criminal Code Act of 1995[2] defines strict liability and absolute liability in division 6.

Recent work health and safety legislation creates strict liability for WHS offenses. Also, certain other industrial offenses such as pollution tend to be enacted in terms of strict liability.[3][4] Most air safety regulations in regard to operators of aircraft and unmanned rockets are enacted as strict liability offenses.[5]


Since 1978, Canadian criminal law has recognized a distinction between offenses of "strict" and "absolute" liability. In R. v. City of Sault Ste-Marie the Supreme Court of Canada created a two-tiered system of liability for regulatory offenses. Under this system, the Crown would continue to be relieved from proving the mens rea of the offense. However, offenses of strict liability would grant the accused a defense of due diligence—which would continue to be denied in cases of absolute liability. Further, in the absence of a clear legislative intent to the contrary, the Court held that all regulatory offences would be presumed to bear strict liability.

Following the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, this distinction was upheld in Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act. The Supreme Court further held that the inclusion of the possibility of imprisonment—no matter how remote—in an offense of absolute liability violated the accused's Section 7 right to liberty.

English law

Under the common law the rule is that crimes require proof of mens rea except in cases of public nuisance, criminal libel, blasphemous libel, outraging public decency and criminal contempt of court. Where the liability arises under a statute, there has been considerable inconsistency, with different rules of construction in statutory interpretation producing varying assessments of the will of Parliament. But, in Sweet v Parsley, Lord Reid laid down the following guidelines for all cases where the offense is criminal as opposed to quasi-criminal:

  1. Wherever a section is silent as to mens rea there is a presumption that, in order to give effect to the will of Parliament, words importing mens rea must be read into the provision.
  2. It is a universal principle that if a penal provision is reasonably capable of two interpretations, that interpretation which is most favourable to the accused must be adopted.
  3. The fact that other sections of the Act expressly require mens rea is not in itself sufficient to justify a decision that a section which is silent as to mens rea creates an absolute offense. It is necessary to go outside the Act and examine all relevant circumstances in order to establish that this must have been the intention of Parliament.[6]

Hence, the literal rule is qualified, and there is a rebuttable presumption that Parliament intended a mens rea to be a requirement in any section which creates an offense where the social stigma following conviction and the punishment available to be imposed show this to be a truly criminal offense. In Gammon v A-G (Hong Kong), Lord Scarman rebutted the presumption because public safety was threatened.[7] Hence, statutes involving pollution, dangerous drugs, and acting as a director while disqualified have been interpreted as imposing strict liability. In National Rivers Authority v Empress Car Co,[8] examples are given of cases in which strict liability has been imposed for "causing" events which were the immediate consequence of the deliberate acts of third parties but which the defendant had a duty to prevent or take reasonable care to prevent. If words like "knowingly" or "wilfully" appear in the section, the inference is that Parliament intended a mens rea requirement in that section. But, if words implying a mens rea are present in some sections but not others, this suggests that Parliament deliberately excluded a mens rea requirement in those sections which are silent.

In considering offenses created in the Children Act 1960, Lord Hutton in B (a minor) v DPP (2000), states the current position:

the test is not whether it is a reasonable implication that the statute rules out mens rea as a constituent part of the crime—the test is whether it is a necessary implication.[9]

As to the meaning of "necessary implication", Lord Nicholls said

Necessary implication connotes an implication that is compellingly clear. Such an implication can be found in the language used, the nature of the offense, the mischief sought to be prevented and any other circumstances which may assist in determining what intention is properly to be attributed to Parliament when creating the offense. Necessary implication may arise from not only the statutory provision under review but also from the rules governing that provision to be deduced from other provisions.

Thus, the court must examine the overall purpose of the statute. If the intention is to introduce quasi-criminal offenses, strict liability will be acceptable to give quick penalties to encourage future compliance, e.g. fixed-penalty parking offenses. But, if the policy issues involved are sufficiently significant and the punishments more severe, the test must be whether reading in a mens rea requirement will defeat Parliament's intention in creating the particular offense, i.e. if defendants might escape liability too easily by pleading ignorance, this would not address the "mischief" that Parliament was attempting to remedy.

Sexual Offences Act 2003

In R. v. G. (2005), a 15-year-old boy was convicted of statutory rape of a child under 13, a crime under Section 5 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The prosecution accepted the boy's claim that he had believed the 12-year-old girl to be 15, but he was nevertheless sentenced to 12 months' detention. This was reduced on appeal to a conditional discharge, but, in a 3–2 decision, the House of Lords declined to reverse the conviction.[10]


In Germany, strict liability does not exist today since it is not consistent with the "nulla poena sine culpa" principle (no punishment without guilt).[11]

Strict liability existed in the German Reich, e.g. § 18 Wechselstempelgesetz, § 95 Reichsstempelgesetz.[12]

United States

As the federal constitution entrenches a right of due process, the United States usually applies strict liability to only the most minor crimes or infractions. One example is a parking violation, where the state only needs to show that the defendant's vehicle was parked inappropriately at a certain curb. Serious crimes like rape and murder usually require some showing of culpability or mens rea. Otherwise, every accidental death, even during medical treatment in good faith, could become grounds for a murder prosecution and a prison sentence.

A serious offense in which strict liability tends to show up is in drunk driving laws; the punishment tends to be given on a strict liability basis, with no mens rea requirement at all. This was important for the purposes of a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2004, Leocal v. Ashcroft, where a deportation order was overturned because the conviction that led to the deportation order was a strict liability law, while deportation was only allowed upon conviction if the crime was a "crime of violence" (where violence, or the potential for it, was inherent in the crime itself).

In many states, statutory rape is considered a strict liability offense. In these states, 22 as of 2007, it is possible to face felony charges despite not knowing the age of the other person, or even if the minor presented identification showing an age of eighteen or higher. The American Law Institute's Model Penal Code generally restricts strict liability to minor offenses ("violations").[13]

However, in United States v. Kantor[14], which concerned underage pornographic actress Traci Lords, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals introduced a "good faith" defense against crimes in which the victim intentionally tricked the defendants into a factual mistake thinking that no crime was being committed.[15] A "good faith" defense requires showing that the defendant affirmatively had reason to believe that they were not committing a crime, not simply a lack of knowledge that they were.

See also


  1. ^ Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Storkwain [1986] UKHL 13, [1986] 2 All ER 635
  2. ^ "Criminal Code Act 1995". Retrieved 4 September 2011.
  3. ^ "Protection of the Sea (Oil Pollution Compensation Funds) Act 1993". Retrieved 9 May 2013.
  4. ^ "Protection of the Sea (Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage) Act 2008". Retrieved 9 May 2013.
  5. ^ "Civil Aviation Act 1988". Retrieved 9 May 2013.
  6. ^ Department, Law Lords. "House of Lords - B (By His Mother and Next Friend) v. Director of Public Prosecutions".
  7. ^ Gammon (Hong Kong) Ltd v Attorney-General of Hong Kong [1984] UKPC 17
  8. ^ Environment Agency (formerly National Rivers Authority) v Empress Car Co (Abertillery) Ltd [1998] UKHL 5
  9. ^ B v Director of Public Prosecutions (2000) 1 All ER 833, 855
  10. ^ "R v G (2008) UKHL 37 (18 June 2008)".
  11. ^ Rogall, ZStW 1986 (98), 579
  12. ^ Rogall, ZStW 1986 (98), 579.
  13. ^ Randall, Vernellia R. "MPC § 2.05. - When Culpability Requirements Are Inapplicable". Retrieved 11 September 2015. Subsection (1) also speaks to offenses defined by statutes other than those in the criminal code, and provides that strict liability may be applied only if a legislative purpose to that effect plainly appears. In that event, however, Subsection (2)(a) makes the grade of the offense a violation irrespective of the penal provisions contained in the statute itself, unless the statute is passed after adoption of the Code and makes contrary provision.
  14. ^ United States v. Kantor, 677 F. Supp. 1421 (C.D. Cal. 1987), aff'd sub nom, United States v. United States Dist. Court, 858 F.2d 534 (9th Cir. 1988)
  15. ^ Levenson, Laurie L. (March 1993). "Good Faith Defenses: Reshaping Strict Liability Crimes". Cornell Law Review. 78 (3): 401–469. Retrieved 11 March 2015.


  • Allen, Michael. (2005). Textbook on Criminal Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-927918-7.
  • Carpenter, (2003). "On Statutory Rape, Strict Liability, and the Public Welfare Offense Model". American Law Review. Vol. 53, 313.
  • Carson, W. G. (1970). "Some Sociological Aspects of Strict Liability and the Enforcement of Factory Legislation". Modern Law Review Vol. 33, 396.
  • Glazebrook, P. R. (2001). "How old did you think she was?" Camb. Law Journal 26.
  • New South Wales Parliament (2006). Strict and Absolute Liability (Discussion Paper) [1]
  • Ormerod, David. (2005). Smith and Hogan Criminal Law. London: LexisNexis. ISBN 0-406-97730-5.
  • Simons, (1997). "When Is Strict Criminal Liability Just?" Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology. Vol. 87, 1075.
Crime in the United States

Crime in the United States has been recorded since colonization. Crime rates have varied over time, with a sharp rise after 1963, reaching a broad peak between the 1970s and early 1990s. Since then, crime has declined significantly in the United States, and current crime rates are approximately the same as those of the 1960s.Statistics on specific crimes are indexed in the annual Uniform Crime Reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and by annual National Crime Victimization Surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In addition to the primary Uniform Crime Report known as Crime in the United States, the FBI publishes annual reports on the status of law enforcement in the United States. The report's definitions of specific crimes are considered standard by many American law enforcement agencies. According to the FBI, index crime in the United States includes violent crime and property crime. Violent crime consists of four criminal offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault; property crime consists of burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

Illegal per se

In US law, the term illegal per se means that the act is inherently illegal. Thus, an act is illegal without extrinsic proof of any surrounding circumstances such as lack of scienter (knowledge) or other defenses. Acts are made illegal per se by statute, constitution or case law.


Quasi-criminal means a lawsuit or equity proceeding that has some, but not all, of the qualities of a criminal prosecution. It may appear in either a Common law or a Civil law jurisdiction. It refers to "a court's right to punish for actions or omissions as if they were criminal".The origins of the phrase comes from the Latin language word, quasi, meaning somewhat, sort-of, alike or akin, to criminal law, as in Quasi-contract. Quasi is used "to indicate that one subject resembles another, with which it is compared, in certain characteristics, but there are intrinsic and material differences between them".During a civil or equity trial, a court may act as if it were a criminal case to punish a person for contempt of court. In some cases, a court may impose asset forfeiture or another penalty. For example, a court has the right to punish actions or omissions of a party in a child support case as if they were a criminal, penalizing the parent with a sentence of jail time.

R v Sault Ste-Marie (City of)

R v Sault Ste-Marie (City of) [1978] 2 SCR 1299 is a Supreme Court of Canada case where the Court defines the three types of offences that exist in Canadian criminal law and further defines the justification for "public welfare" offences.

Sweet v Parsley

Sweet v Parsley was an English criminal law case where the defendant landlady of a farmhouse (which was let to students and which she visited infrequently) was charged under a 1965 Act "of having been concerned in the management of premises used for smoking cannabis".

Even though she had neither knowledge of nor privity with the offence, it took place on her property and at first instance she was convicted, being deemed "liable without fault". This conviction was later quashed by the House of Lords on the grounds that knowledge of the use of the premises was essential to the offence. Since she had no such knowledge, she did not commit the offence.

Trojan horse defense

The Trojan horse defense is a technologically based take on the classic SODDI defense, believed to have surfaced in the UK in 2003. The defense typically involves defendant denial of responsibility for (i) the presence of cyber contraband on the defendant's computer system; or (ii) commission of a cybercrime via the defendant's computer, on the basis that a malware (such as a Trojan horse, virus, worm, Internet bot or other program) or on some other perpetrator using such malware, was responsible for the commission of the offence in question.A modified use of the defense involves a defendant charged with a non-cyber crime admitting that whilst technically speaking the defendant may be responsible for the commission of the offence, he or she lacked the necessary criminal intent or knowledge on account of malware involvement.The phrase itself is not an established legal term, originating from early texts by digital evidence specialists referring specifically to trojans because many early successful Trojan horse defenses were based on the operation of alleged Trojan horses. Due to the increasing use of Trojan programs by hackers, and increased publicity regarding the defense, its use is likely to become more widespread.

Classes of crimes
Elements of crimes
Inchoate offences
Offences against the person
Sexual offences
Public order offences
Offences against property
Forgery, personation and cheating
Offences against justice
Other common law areas


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