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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
An act committed without mens rea cannot properly be called a crime
There has been a long going debate on how the law should regulate and act upon the society. One controversial topic which lies in the criminal justice system is the exact definition of crime. However, with such broad categories of offences in a wide range of conduct in this subject field, it can be very difficult to conclude a precise answer, if at all. The following phrase ‘what is a crime’ depends on your perspective.  It gives you an idea how open ended the question can be. Nevertheless, as is usually the case, a crime will consist an act (Actus Reus) performed by the defendant together with a state of mind (Mens rea) when the action was undertaken.  As the statement given in the question addresses the importance of mens rea in a crime. This essay is going to distinguish and justify its validity via the case of Miller  and how different crimes are labelled according to the state of mind of the defendant in the first part of the essay. Conversely, strict liability offences which can be committed without proof of mens rea present by legal authorities. In this sense, is it fair to punish those who did not intend to cause harm, but achieved so due to ignorance? On the other hand, it would be extremely difficult to prove the mens rea on some offences, such as motoring offences. Furthermore, it would impose a large burden on the criminal justice system. Such controversial issue will be covered later on.
The conduct element of a crime is known as the actus reus, this means that the result must have occurred under certain circumstances with certain consequences  . For example, in order for a murder to be convicted, the victim must be dead as the result of the defendant’s action. However, what distinguishes the offence the defendant gets charged under also depends on his state of mind when conducting the actus reus, the state of mind is known as mens rea  . In order to commit a crime, mens rea must be present when actus reus takes place, in other words, the actus reus and mens reus must coexist simultaneously. This can be referred to the case of Miller where the defendant was intoxicated by alcohol, he went to his room and lighted a cigarette and he fall asleep. By the time he got up the mattress was on fire due to the lighted cigarette had been dropped onto it while he was asleep, when the defendant woke up and saw that he had taken no attempt to stop the spreading of the fire but left the room and went to a neighbouring room. In this case, the actus reus was when the lighted cigarette fell out from the defendant’s hand, however, Lord Diplock concluded that due to the absence of mens rea when this took place, the court had come to a conclusion that no crime, under the charge of arson, had been committed. However, the absence of an action to attempt to stop the spread of the fire was what the defendant got charged with arson for. As the law states if a person has a duty of care towards a particular matter, an omission (a failure to act when there is a duty of care) is accountable to be actus reus. In the case of Miller, he was charged with arson due to his omission with the necessary mens rea present at the same moment in time. This emphasises the importance of mens rea’s present in a crime. Another area of the law which identifies the importance of mens rea can be found in the labelling of crime i.e. difference between the charge of murder and manslaughter. Although both actus reus are the same, the maximum sentence for murder can be life imprisonment, whereas it is much less for manslaughter. Moreover, Lord Scarman stated on behalf of the Privy Council in Gammon that ‘there is a presumption of law that mens rea is required before a person can be held guilty of a criminal offence.’  This statement clearly reinforces that the element of mens rea in a crime is important.
Having been through the importance of mens rea in a crime and how it could have a major influence as to which crime can be committed by the defendant. Yet, there is an exception category known as strict liability. Offences under this category can be convicted without the need to prove the presence of mens rea during the event, but actus reus alone is sufficient enough. The case of Alphacell Ltd and Woodward  , where defendant’s company manufactures papers, during this process, its well maintained filtration equipment broke down and as the result pollutants were entering to the river nearby. The company got charged under the River (Prevention of Pollution) Act 1951. Regardless whether the company knew that pollutants were entering the river; the fact that the offence was one of strict liability was what mattered.  However, is this justifiable in terms of justice and could this really be classed as so called proper crime as the statement has addressed? It can be seen one of its justifications of strict liability can act as promotion of care and efficiency in business. After all, the function of the criminal law has always been a mechanism in social control and prevention of harm  . From my interpretation, the term ‘proper crime’ means crimes that are more serious which require a more severe means of punishments, unlike minor offences where the form of punishment is often dealt with via a fine, like strict liability. However, the presumption of mens rea was emphasized in Sheppard by Lords Diplock and Fraser in 1980 which stated that the judicial view on recognizing strict liability offences is becoming less favorable.  In spite of this, rebutting of such a presumption based on the protection to those vulnerable potential victims, such as children, can be seen within the Sexual Offences Act  . This is a strict liability offence where regardless of whether the defendant had knowledge of the victim’s age. This principle is supported by the case of R v G  , where the defendant was 15 and engaged sexual intercourse with the victim who was 12. The appeal went to the High Court and Lord Hoffman stated that:
“The policy of the legislation is to protect children. If you have sex with someone who is on any view a child or young person, you take your chance on exactly how old they are. To that extent the offence is one of strict liability and it is no defence that the accused believed the other person to be 13 or over.”
Motoring offences are a prime example of a strict liability offence. In instances such as speeding, driving without insurance or driving without a licence which are outlined in the Road Traffic Act  , the mens rea element is not considered. As long as the act is performed, this is suffienct evidence for the defendant to be changed. Furthermore, the mens rea element would be very difficult to prove. Also, due to the very high number of these kinds of offences, proving the mens rea would be very time consuming.
In conclusion, this essay has attempted to outline what is a crime with general principles of actus reus and mens rea where they are present in most cases. This went on further to identify the importance of mens rea’s presence via cases such as Miller and Lord Scarman’s opinion of the Privy Council in Gammon. Furthermore, how essential mens rea is during the crime. For example, given the difference between labeled murder and manslaughter, the sentences vary significantly. Having mentioned the importance of mens rea in a crime, with strict liability it is not the state of mind which is important but the conduct itself. There is no need to prove the defendant’s mens rea by the legal authorities. This is emphasized by the case of Alphacell Ltd and Woodward. However, on the issue of blame worthy this may be argued by others. Having said that, the criminal law is there to prevent harm and social control, and to an extent, this mechanism can deter people from committing such offences, which could potentially cause harm to the innocent population. If mens rea was to be proven in every single strict liability case, this would impose a significant burden to the criminal justice system. Sexual offences committed against children under the age of 13 highlight the presence of strict liability and its importance. Also it reflects the severity of some strict liability offences. This emphasizes that not all strict liability cases are minor offences and that without the presence of mens rea, a proper crime can still occur. In summary, it is evident that mens rea is a vital component in a crime; however, there are offences where the mens rea need not be proved.
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