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
strict liability on the grounds that-
‘…to construe the Food and Drugs Act 1955 in a sense less
strict….would make a serious inroad on the legislation for consumer
protection.’ (Elliot and Quinn, p.36)
Since they had taken all reasonable and practical precautions, it
would appear that this ruling is fairly severe. There does appear,
however, to be a strong argument for its use in order to protect the
consumer, and perhaps more specifically, the public.
There is also a great deterrent value in the implementation of strict
liability. Roe (Criminal Law, 2nd ed, 2001, p.210) tells us that many
offences are not handled by the Crown Prosecution Service or the
police, but by ‘…special Government bodies, such as the Health and
Safety Inspectorate, which checks that safety rules are observed in
the workplace.’ The bodies tend to work by pressuring any potential
offenders into putting right any breaches with the threat of
prosecution. It is the opinion of this essay that this could be an
effective method in combating the breaching of any Health and Safety
rules; strict liability may allow enforcement agencies to ‘Strengthen
their position’ (Roe, p.211.1) as...