A common law principle

A common law principle

12.1       There is a common law presumption that ‘mens rea, an evil intention, or a knowledge of the wrongfulness of the act, is an essential ingredient in every offence’.[1] The general requirement of mens rea is said to be ‘one of the most fundamental protections in criminal law’,[2] and it reflects the idea that

it is generally neither fair, nor useful, to subject people to criminal punishment for unintended actions or unforeseen consequences unless these resulted from an unjustified risk (ie recklessness).[3]

12.2       Ashworth and Horder write:

The essence of the principle of mens rea is that criminal liability should be imposed only on persons who are sufficiently aware of what they are doing, and of the consequences it may have, that they can fairly be said to have chosen the behaviour and consequences.[4]

12.3       Some criminal offences, however, do not require proof of fault—these are described as strict liability and absolute liability offences. The Terms of Reference for this Inquiry ask the ALRC to consider laws that apply strict or absolute liability to all physical elements of a criminal offence. However, at this stage of its inquiry, the ALRC is interested in submissions on offences with any strict or absolute liability element which people consider to be unjustified.

12.4       This chapter discusses the source and rationale of the mens rea principle; how the principle is protected from statutory encroachment; and when it may be justified to create a criminal offence that does not require proof of fault. The ALRC calls for submissions on two questions.