Strict Liability in Criminal Law

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It is the purpose of this essay to discuss whether the implementation

of strict liability within criminal law system is a necessary means

for combating crime, and if there is any justification for its use.

Strict liability is the placing of liability upon the defendant(s),

regardless of whether or not mens rea is present. This can include

instances of negligence, carelessness or accident. There are a number

of arguments for and against strict liability, and this essay will

identify and explore these arguments.

It is often argued that by promoting high standards of care, strict

liability protects the liberty of the public from dangerous practices.

Barbara Wootton (Crime and Criminal Law: reflections of a Magistrates

and Social Scientist, 1981, p.256-258) defends strict liability on

this basis, suggesting that the objective of criminal law is to

prevent ‘socially damaging activities’. In support of this, it is

suggested by Elliot and Quinn (Criminal Law, 2000, p.32) that-

‘It would be absurd to turn a blind eye to those who cause harm due to

carelessness, negligence or even an accident’.

This approach appears to be stringent. One might be inclined to

suggest that accident is part of human nature, and in applying strict

liability to even the most honest mistakes, a satisfactory outcome may

not be achieved. One example of this is found in Smedleys v Breed

(1974). The defendants were convicted under the Food and Drugs act

1955, after a caterpillar was found in a tin of peas. Despite the fact

that individual inspection of each pea would not have prevented the

offence being committed, Lord Hailsham defended the imposition of


... middle of paper ...

...seen as being morally unsatisfactory.

List of Cases

Gammon (Hong Kong) Ltd v Attorney-General of Hong Kong [1985] AC1, PC

29, 30, 31, 33, 34

Smedleys v Breed [1974] AC 839; [1979] 2 All ER 21; [1974] 2 WLR 525

36, 37


Elliott, Catherine & Quinn, Frances (2000) ‘Criminal Law- 3rd

edition’, Longman

Molan, Michael (2003) ‘Criminal Law- 4th edition’, Old Bailey Press

Roe, Diana (2002) ‘Criminal Law- 2nd edition’, Hodder and Stoughton

Smith, J.C & Hogan, B (1992) ‘Criminal Law’ London: Butterworths

Wootton, Barbara (1981) ‘Crime and the Criminal Law: reflections of a

Magistrates and Social Scientist’, Oxford: Clarendon



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