Fault… and Blame
- By James Ferguson
In criminal law, it is usual for an offence to comprise both actus reus and mens rea. This can be translated as the guilty act and the guilty mind.
There are, however, some exceptions where strict liability offences do not require an intent to commit the act itself. This was recently the source of some debate before the Supreme Court in London.
The Appellant, Highbury Poultry, operates a slaughterhouse in Shropshire with a throughput of almost 20 million chickens per annum.
The slaughterhouse operates by shackling the birds to a moving line through various stages: including stunning, bleeding and scalding.
On three dates in 2016, it was found that live birds went into the scalding tank because their necks had not been cut properly.
Highbury was charged with various offences contrary to European Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing which provides that:
Animals shall be spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering during their killing and related operations.
The Supreme Court decided that the domestic regulations should be read under the principles of EU law from which they derived. Applied to the instant case, it was held that the offences were of strict liability – negligence by the business operator does not have to be proved. The case has been sent back to the Magistrates’ Court for the District Judge to determine on this basis.
The rationale behind strict liability offences is to simplify the enforcement of comparatively minor wrongs. Where a statute is otherwise silent, it will be presumed that proof of mens rea is requisite to establish an offence. Whether you consider the circumstances of this case to be minor is one thing; whether you can still eat your dinner is another.
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