Since the beginning of time, in criminal law liability was imposed on the offender whether there was any mental element or intention that needed to be proved. This is the foundation for the concept of mens rea, which is deeply rooted in the history of criminal law.
In Criminal Law, liability for one’s actions is based on two essential elements, firstly ‘actus reus’ which is defined as ‘guilty act’ and secondly mensreas‘ guilty mind’ or intention, these two are essential for any crime, thus the maxim actus non facitreum, nisi sit rea rightly explains the principle of criminal liability as the act itself is not criminal unless it is accompanied by a guilty mind. The principle of strict liability is imposed when atleast one element of mens rea is absent. Strict Liability crimes are those types of crimes where the defendant is responsible for criminal action even if he does not possess the required intention for the alleged offence. This principle was developed in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, this rule draws its basis from tortuous wrongs. Section 11 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 lays down the provision as to who is to be held liable. The word defined in this section is “person”, both juristic and natural persons. A person is liable for his wrong actions coupled with guilty intention as per the general principles of the criminal law. But strict liability is an exception to this general rule. A person can be liable for the penalty even when he does not intend to do such offence.
Let us understand this better from a case R v Queen, a man who was in love with a girl, eloped with her, he did not know at that time that she was underage, but since the law in England punished such an act, the court did not see the intention but instead directly imposed the principle of strict liability and he was charged for the same. Strict Liability is liability for which mens rea i.e. guilt mind does not have to be proven in relation to one or more elements comprising the act. Strict Liability emerged in the 19th century to improve safety and working standards in factories. These laws were then applied in regulatory offences. The imposition of strict liability may operate very unfairly in individual cases as seen in Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v. Storkwain, the jurisdiction, in this case, is that the issue of drugs is a social evil and pharmacists should be encouraged to take unreasonable care to verify prescriptions before supplying drugs.
There are some statutes which impose strict liability principle. Such statutes have been passed in the interest of the public. For Example-the Motor Vehicle Act, the Arms Act, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic substances act, 1985, the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, etc. The Halsbury Laws of England states that if there is silence about the element of mens rea in any statutory crime, then there is a presumption of essentiality of mens rea. The legislative intention behind such presumption is that a man should not be held responsible for his acts or omissions just because the statute says so. The presumption has to be established. In the case of State of Maharashtra v. M. H. George, a very famous case in India, it was held that “Merely because a statute deals with a grave social evil is not sufficient to infer strict liability, it must also be seen that whether imposition of strict liability would assist in the enforcement of the regulations. Unless this is so, there is no reason in penalizing him and cannot be inferred that the legislature imposed strict liability merely to find a luckless victim.” Finally, the court decided that when the accused was held loaded with gold bars in his jacket beyond the limit allowed under the provisions of FERA, 1947, the doctrine of mens rea cannot be applied here. The object and purpose of the Act will be defeated if the accused is allowed to take the plea of ignorance of the law and validate his action accordingly. Even the ignorance of the law is not allowed as a valid defence. According to Sir J. Stephens, the doctrine of mens rea is misleading as the doctrine originated when criminal law practically dealt with offences which were not defined. In the present scenario, however, every crime is defined precisely. The elements of the crime are marked in such provisions. So it can be easily carved out as to which offences require clear mentioning and proving of mens rea and which offences have to be presumed to have mens rea implied in it.
Another exception to this principle in section 375: Rape, the concept of statutory rape in case of a man having sexual intercourse with his wife below the age of 15 years even with her consent will be held responsible for the offence of rape. It is immaterial whether the man intended so or not. The mens rea or guilty intention is presumed here. By virtue of his act of having intercourse with her wife below the age of 15 years, he is liable for the said offence. Further, in the same provision, the sixth description states that even if a female is consenting completely for the sexual act but is below the age of 18 years, then the consensual sexual act will be moulded as an instance of statutory rape. It will rape because the statute declares it to be so. It does not matter if the parties have the guilty intention or not. Even a genuine sexual act on a bonafide relationship can also amount to rape because of the provision.
The inclusion of the principle of strict liability in the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 asserts that a person be held liable criminally even if that man has not intended a particular act which has been prohibited by law. Just by virtue of that act being committed by him, he is held responsible. However, the principle of strict liability is different from absolute liability. In case of offences of strict liability, the element of mens rea is presumed, and it need not be proved. The intent of the legislators behind taking up this principle in our penal code was that a perpetrator of offence should not escape from the clutches of the Criminal Law System just because he did not intend to do so because of his mere callousness or lack of awareness.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should Strict Liability cover all offences?
Strict liability can be imposed with at least one element of mens rea being absent from one of the elements of the actusreus, however, it is of utmost importance that strict liability is imposed to offences which do not carry a social stigma, as imposing criminal liability on truly criminal
Apart from Criminal law, in what circumstances is strict liability applied?
In tort law, strict liability is imposed on those engaged in abnormally dangerous activities, on persons who keep dangerous animals, and on manufacturers or sellers that introduce into commerce goods that are unreasonably dangerous when in a defective condition.
What is the difference between vicarious liability and strict liability?
An employer might be subject to vicarious liability for an action performed by an employee that is within the reasonable scope of their employment. Strict liability is a liability that is imposed without concern or consideration of the intent of the person who caused the harm.
What is a good example of a strict liability offence?
An example of a strict liability offence is speeding. There might be valid defences that may be available for this as well.
“The views of the authors are personal“
The Indian Penal Code, K.D. Gaur, fourth Edition, Universal Law Publishing Co. p,786-806Criminal Law, PSA Pillai, 11th Edition, Lexis NexisCecil Turner.J. (2013), Kenny’s Outlines of Criminal Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University PressTextbook of Criminal Law, Glanville Williams, fourth Edition, Sweet & Maxwell South Asian Edition Rylands v. Fletcher,(1868)LR 3 HL 330Great Britain v. Storkwain (1986) 2 ALL ER 635,State of Maharashtra v. M. H. George, 1965 SCR (1) 123