According to criminal law a strict liability offense is a crime whereby the guilty mind (mens rea) does not have to be proven when a guilty act (actus Reus) is committed. Offenses of strict liability are also referred to as offenses of absolute prohibition (Ormerod & Laird, 2015). An offense of absolute prohibition is known as a strict liability because the person who committed the offence will be charged guilty despite the fact that they were truly ignorant of the factors that made the act. An offender who committed a strict liability offense may not be culpable in any real manner. When a person has committed a strict liability offense, he/she cannot be absolved of the liability although he/she could not have avoided the offense committed even though they attempted to avoid. When an offender is accused of a strict liability offense, it is not a must that for the prosecution to provide evidence of a guilty act relating to the strict liability (Ormerod & Laird, 2015). According to criminal law, the person claiming that a strict liability offense occurred needs only to prove that the offense happened and that the defendant was responsible for the occurrence of the offense.
Strict liability laws came to being in the 19th century and were meant to improve working and safety standards in the industries (Steele, 1993). It was very difficult to prove guilty acts in factories and therefore very few prosecutions occurred, the prosecutions increased when strict liability crimes were introduced. In the modern world an example of a strict liability crime is selling liquor to an under aged citizen. Most of the strict liability offenses are statutory crimes. However, statutes do not distinctively state that a specific crime is a strict liability (Carson 1970). When a statute considers an offense as a reckless crime, it means that the crime requires mens rea but also means that a strict liability crime is being committed. In most cases, it is the courts that decide whether or not an offense committed requires mens rea. There are three main classes of strict liability. The first class is those deeds which are not crimes in the real sense, but are acts whereby public interest is prohibited and have a penalty for example selling adulterated foods. The second class comprises of acts which are considered as public nuisances for example in cases where an employer is held responsible for the disturbance caused by his employees without his awareness and against his orders. The third class comprises of cases where although, the act is a criminal act, it is a summary means of enforcing a civil right (Steele, 1993).
Strict liability offenses have been classified as crimes by the statute not because they are morally wrong but because of public policy. The law has set behavioral standards and breaching the standards results to a criminal liability even though there may be no criminal intention. Criminal liability offenses aim to regulate acts that pose any potential dangers to public health, public safety and public morals (Wasserstrom 1960). Examples of strict liability offenses are such as traffic offenses and statutory rape. While it might seem unfair to prosecute people for committing honest mistakes, the law looks at the benefits to the community and therefore assumes that enforcing the laws outweighs the costs of prosecuting an offender who appears to be without blame. Strict liability acts to compensate for any harms caused by the risks brought about by an offender and to reduce any risk caused by negligence liability. Most offenses of strict liability carry small penalties unlike true crimes which demand heavy penalties. Arguments against strict liability offenses argue that they are unjust as the offender may not be at fault and that the offense does not really act as a deterrent (Carson 1970).
- Carson, W. G. (1970). Some sociological aspects of strict liability and the enforcement of Factory Legislation. The Modern Law Review, 33(4), 396-412. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2230.1970.tb01283.x
- Ormerod, D., & Laird, K. (2015). Obscene communication and publication offences. Smith and Hogan’s Criminal Law, 1191-1226. doi:10.1093/he/9780198702313.003.0031
- Steele, J. (1993). Statutory Strict Liability and the Common Law Judge. The Cambridge Law Journal, 52(02), 202. doi:10.1017/s0008197300095027
- Wasserstrom, R. A. (1960). Strict liability in the Criminal Law. Stanford Law Review, 12(4), 731. doi:10.2307/1226524