Recently, I have been discussing with my students the creation of statutory criminal offences i.e. those created by Parliament (whether the U.K. or Scottish Parliaments). In particular, the group discussions have centred around the issue of whether the offence requires the accused to have mens rea (criminal intent or the guilty mind) when carrying out or attempting the actus reus (the wrongful act). Alternatively, the offence may be one of strict liability where mens rea is largely irrelevant. Strict liability offences include non-payment of a TV licence and some road traffic offences.
In relation to strict liability offences, the Crown (the prosecutor) merely has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the actus reus.
These issues were particularly pertinent because the Queen’s Speech had just taken place at Westminster on Tuesday 10 May 2022 (delivered by Prince Charles this year in his mother’s absence). This is a ceremonial occasion in the life of the U.K. Parliament, but it isn’t just for the tourists to come and gawp at. It’s the occasion where the U.K. Government sets out its legislative or law making proposals for the next year.
It used to be a very important occasion for Scotland, but since the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 (the Devolution process), it has become less so. Many laws for Scotland are now made in Edinburgh.
That’s not to say that the U.K. Parliament can no longer pass laws for Scotland. That would be giving you a totally false impression: the U.K. or Westminster Parliament remains the supreme law making or legislative authority in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. That is a legal fact.
One of the Bills that was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech this year was the Public Order Bill. This is a very controversial Bill because it aims to target and control the conduct and extent of public protests – particularly protests by environmental groups such as Insulate U.K. and Extinction Rebellion.
A link to the text of this year’s Queen’s Speech can be found below:
When I was speaking to the students several days after the Queen’s Speech, I was saying that I would have to go and look at the text of the Public Order Bill in order to establish a number of things:
a) Does it apply to Scotland? The answer would appear to be no as the text of the Bill mentions England and Wales only.
b) Does it create strict liability criminal offences in relation to the practice of ‘locking on’; ‘obstruction etc of major transport works’; and ‘interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure’?
For locking on offences, the intention of the accused still seems to be critical, but regarding obstruction etc of major transport works, there could possibly be an element of strict liability.
Some screenshots from the text of the Public Order Bill can be seen below:
When the language of a Bill or an Act of Parliament uses words such as ‘wilfully’, ‘recklessly’ or ‘intentionally’ in connection with a criminal offence, it’s a fairly safe bet to conclude that the Crown must be able to demonstrate that the accused had the necessary mens rea when the actus reus occurred.
Some of the media commentary around the Public Order Bill was misleading to say the least – particularly in relation to the proposed offence of ‘locking on’. I picked up from several media outlets that this proposal involved the creation of a strict liability offence and, yet, the language of the Bill seems to suggest otherwise.
That said, Section 3 of the Bill (obstruction etc of major transport works), lacks clear references to the intention of the accused and this might suggest that Parliament intends to create a strict liability offence. Further clarity can, of course, be sought by studying the explanatory notes which accompany the Bill. It is worth pointing out that, even if this is an attempt by Parliament to create a strict liability offence, it could be blocked or amended as the Bill makes it way through the Commons and the Lords.
Sweet v Parsley  UKHL 1
In the above (and often quoted) decision of the House of Lords, Lord Reid (in paragraph 6 of the judgement) made the following observations regarding statutory offences which require mens rea and those which are ‘absolute’ or ‘strict’:
“Our first duty is to consider the words of the Act: if they shew a clear intention to create an absolute offence that is an end of the matter. But such cases are very rare. Sometimes the words of the section which creates a particular offence make it clear that mens rea is required in one form or another. Such cases are quite frequent. But in a very large number of cases there is no clear indication either way. In such cases there has for centuries been a presumption that Parliament did not intend to make criminals of persons who were in no way blameworthy in what they did. That means that whenever a section is silent as to mens rea there is a presumption that, in order to give effect to the will of Parliament, we must read in words appropriate to require mens rea.”
A link to the decision of the House of Lords can be found below:
The Public Order Bill must now pass through the House of Commons and then the House of Lords before receiving the Royal Assent. Once the formality of the Royal Assent has taken place, the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament i.e. part of the law of the land (for England and Wales in any case).
I am jumping the gun somewhat: the Bill might have a stormy passage through Parliament. As if to prove my point, please see a recent Tweet from Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP:
We’ll just have to wait and see how matters develop.
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 May 2022