For most offences, the Prosecution must establish that the accused person had what is called the ‘criminal intent’ to commit the alleged offence. However, some offences under Victorian law, known as ‘strict liability’ or ‘absolute liability’ offences, do not require moral responsibility to be found guilty.
Under a strict liability offence, the accused is held liable for their conduct regardless of their moral responsibility. If however an accused was under a mistaken (but reasonable) belief about a set of facts, and if those facts were correct the conduct would not have constituted an offence, then that person is not criminally responsible.
This defence is known as the ‘honest and reasonable belief’ defence. Importantly, there must be a mistake as to some fact – mere ignorance is insufficient.
In the case of an absolute liability offence, it is immaterial whether the accused was under a mistaken belief or not. This defence is not available in the case of an absolute liability offence.
Strict and absolute liability are often found in regulatory type offences where the government is seeking to maximise compliance (for example, speeding or refusing a breath test). Understandably, these types of offences can be considered harsh because a person, despite not being at fault, is still guilty in the eyes of the law.