Sweet v Parsley

Sweet v Parsley[1][2] 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.

Sweet v Parsley
Transcript(s)judgment

Requirement of mens rea

Lord Reid declared:

. . . there has for centuries been a presumption that Parliament did not intend to make criminals of persons who were in no way blameworthy in what they did. That means that whenever a section is silent as to mens rea there is a presumption that, in order to give effect to the will of Parliament, we must read in words appropriate to require mens rea. . . . it is firmly established by a host of authorities that mens rea is an essential ingredient of every offence unless some reason can be found for holding that that is not necessary.

The case's significance in English criminal law is that it sets out new set guidelines for determining whether an offence is one of strict liability or whether mens rea is a presumed requirement.

Lord Reid laid down the following guidelines for all cases where the offence 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]
  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 offence. 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.[4][5]

References

  1. ^ Sweet v Parsley report [1]
  2. ^ Sweet v Parsley [1970] AC 132, [1969] 2 WLR 470, 53 Cr App R 221, [1969] 1 All ER 347, HL, reversing [1968] 2 QB 418
  3. ^ This is akin to the contra proferentem rule in contract.
  4. ^ B v DPP [2]
  5. ^ see Statutory interpretation

See also

English criminal law

English criminal law concerns offences, their prevention and the consequences, in England and Wales. Criminal conduct is considered to be a wrong against the whole of a community, rather than just the private individuals affected. The state, in addition to certain international organisations, has responsibility for crime prevention, for bringing the culprits to justice, and for dealing with convicted offenders. The police, the criminal courts and prisons are all publicly funded services, though the main focus of criminal law concerns the role of the courts, how they apply criminal statutes and common law, and why some forms of behaviour are considered criminal. The fundamentals of a crime are a guilty act (or actus reus) and a guilty mental state (or mens rea). The traditional view is that moral culpability requires that a defendant should have recognised or intended that they were acting wrongly, although in modern regulation a large number of offences relating to road traffic, environmental damage, financial services and corporations, create strict liability that can be proven simply by the guilty act.

Defences exist to some crimes. A person who is accused may in certain circumstances plead they are insane and did not understand what they were doing, that they were not in control of their bodies, they were intoxicated, mistaken about what they were doing, acted in self defence, acted under duress or out of necessity, or were provoked. These are issues to be raised at trial, for which there are detailed rules of evidence and procedure to be followed.

Fault (law)

Fault, as a legal term, refers to legal blameworthiness and responsibility in each area of law. It refers to both the actus reus and the mental state of the defendant. The basic principle is that a defendant should be able to contemplate the harm that his actions may cause, and therefore should aim to avoid such actions. Different forms of liability employ different notions of fault, in some there is no need to prove fault, but the absence of it.

In criminal law, the mens rea is used to decide if the defendant has criminal intent when he commits the act and, if so, he is therefore liable for the crime. However, this is not necessary for strict liability offences, where no particular state of mind is required to satisfy the burden of proof.

Negligence per se

Negligence per se is a doctrine in US law whereby an act is considered negligent because it violates a statute (or regulation). The doctrine is effectively a form of strict liability.

Recklessness (law)

In criminal law and in the law of tort, recklessness may be defined as the state of mind where a person deliberately and unjustifiably pursues a course of action while consciously disregarding any risks flowing from such action. Recklessness is less culpable than intentional wickedness, but is more blameworthy than careless behaviour.

Rose Heilbron

Dame Rose Heilbron DBE QC (19 August 1914 – 8 December 2005) was an outstanding English barrister of the post-war period in the United Kingdom. Her career included many "firsts" for a woman – she was the first woman to achieve a first class honours degree in law at the University of Liverpool, the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray's Inn, one of the first two women to be appointed King's Counsel in England, the first woman to lead in a murder case, the first woman Recorder, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey, and the first woman Treasurer of Gray's Inn. She was also the second woman to be appointed a High Court judge, after Elizabeth Lane.

Statutory interpretation

Statutory interpretation is the process by which courts interpret and apply legislation. Some amount of interpretation is often necessary when a case involves a statute. Sometimes the words of a statute have a plain and a straightforward meaning. But in many cases, there is some ambiguity or vagueness in the words of the statute that must be resolved by the judge. To find the meanings of statutes, judges use various tools and methods of statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of statutory interpretation, legislative history, and purpose.

In common law jurisdictions, the judiciary may apply rules of statutory interpretation both to legislation enacted by the legislature and to delegated legislation such as administrative agency regulations.

Strict liability

In criminal and civil law, strict liability is a standard of liability under which a person is legally responsible for the consequences flowing from an activity even in the absence of fault or criminal intent on the part of the defendant.

In the field of torts, prominent examples of strict liability may include product liability, abnormally dangerous activities (e.g., blasting), intrusion onto another's land by livestock, and ownership of wild animals. Traditional criminal offenses which require no element of intent (mens rea) include statutory rape and felony murder.

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, 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.

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