Strict Liability

Notes:Strict Liability Strict Liability

Watch the Panaroma program on the horesemeat scandal by clicking here.


For some crimes there is no need for the prosecution to prove mens rea. This could be for the whole offence, or for one element of it.  These are known as crimes of strict liability. Most of these have been created by statute.  They are designed to protect the public, and are generally minor offences.

Identifying Strict Liability Offences

There is a presumption in favour of mens rea, and this is especially strong in truly criminal cases. These offences are likely to result in the D receiving a custodial sentence or have a big impact on their lives the courts have held it is less likely for an offence to be classed as strict liability, mens rea must also be proved:

Sweet v Parsley (1969) HL


Stephanie Sweet was convicted under The Dangerous Drugs Act 1965:  she had sub-let some rooms to students who, unknown to her, smoked cannabis there.  She was convicted of being concerned in the management of premises used for the purpose of smoking cannabis.  On appeal, her conviction was quashed.  The HL decided that this was a “truly criminal” offence and so needed proof of mens rea.


A strict liability offence must be a matter of social concern.  These are normally regulatory offences.

Alphacell Ltd.v Woodward (1972) HL


A company had taken reasonable precautions to prevent pollution from its works entering a river.  However, the pump became clogged up with brambles and leaves, and pollution did enter into the river.  The court decided that the defendants had in fact caused the polluted matter to enter the river, and that strict liability applied.  The company was guilty.


Smedleys v Breed (1974) HL


A housewife found a dead caterpillar in a tin of peas she bought from a supermarket.  The HL agreed with the lower courts that this was a strict liability offence, and that it did not matter whether or not Smedleys had taken all reasonable care.


Harrow LBC v Shah and Shah (1999) QBD


The owners of a shop were aware of the rules about the sale of lottery tickets.  They put up notices in their shop, and told staff not to sell any tickets to anyone under the age of 16.  Nevertheless one of their staff sold a ticket to an under-age boy, even though he seemed older.  They were guilty: liability was strict.  No mens rea was needed for the age of the boy.

R v Blake 1997

Investigation officers heard an unlicensed radio station broadcast and traced it to a flat where the defendant was discovered alone standing in front of the record decks, still playing music and wearing a set of headphones. Though the defendant admitted that he knew he was using the equipment, he claimed that he believed he was making demonstration tapes and did not know he was transmitting. The defendant was convicted of using wireless telegraphy equipment without a licence, contrary to s1(1) Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 and appealed on the basis that the offence required mens rea.

The Court of Appeal held that the offence was an absolute (actually a strict) liability offence. The Court applied Lord Scarman's principles in Gammon and found that, though the presumption in favour of mens rea was strong because the offence carried a sentence of imprisonment and was, therefore, "truly criminal", yet the offence dealt with issues of serious social concern in the interests of public safety (namely, frequent unlicensed broadcasts on frequencies used by emergency services) and the imposition of strict liability encouraged greater vigilance in setting up careful checks to avoid committing the offence.

Sometimes people can be found guilty of a criminal offence for being in the wrong place, even though they had no control over their actions.  These are known as “state of affairs” crimes.


R v Larsonneur (1933) CA

Mlle Larsonneur was a French subject.  When her permission to remain in the UK expired, she went to Ireland.  However, she was immediately deported from Ireland and brought back to Holyhead by the Irish police.  She was handed over to the English police on arrival, and charged under the Aliens’ Order 1920 with being “an alien to whom leave to land in the United Kingdom had been refused”.  The CA decided that she had been rightly convicted, even though she had been brought to the UK by force.


Winzar v Chief Constable of Kent (1983)

Winzar had been taken into hospital on a stretcher but then discharged for being drunk.  When he was found slumped in a seat on a hospital corridor, the police were summoned to evict him.  They took him into the street outside.  They then placed him in their police car and charged him with “being found drunk on the highway” contrary to Section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872.

Reasons for Strict Liability offences

These are offences that do not require the MR to be proved for at least one part of the AR. In otherwords the P no longer have to prove the D has any awareness of committing a crime, just that the physical conduct or omission (AR). Most SL offences are created in Acts of Parliament and normally only result in a fine. We have SL offences because:

  1. SL offences are those where the publics’ safety is more important than the potential injustice of a crime that requires little or no knowledge on behalf of the D to be  proved. Alphacell v Woodward: where the D company polluted a river which fed into the drinking water supply. As this was a SL offence eventhough the company had taken all reasonable precautions to stop the pollution they were still guilty of the offence. Public safety for drinking water was more important than allowing the company a defence of taking all reasonable steps to stop the pollution and acts to raise standards for safe drinking water.

  2. Encourages companies and those providing services to the public to take greater care in what they do. Shah v Shah:

  3. Makes it easier for the P to prove an offence where the publics’ safety and well being is at stake as no need to prove any knowledge (MR) of the offence.

  4. As it is much more likely for the P to get a prosecution the D is more likely to plead guilty resulting in cheaper costs to the public and better compliance with the law.

  5. The publicity caused by companies being found guilty of SL offences acts as a deterrent to other potential offenders.

  6. They attract little social stigma to the offending company/individual other than to encourage the higher standard of care in what they do - they are therefore called regulatory of quasi criminal offences due to this lack of social stigma and harsh punishment.

    Task: Watch the video clip about a strict liability offence of running a pirate radio station. Give 3 reasons why this is a strict liability offence. Video Clip.

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