Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Absolute Liability Definition:

Offences in which it is not open to a person to avoid liability on the ground that she or he acted under a reasonable mistake of fact which, if the facts had been as the accused believed them to be, would have made his act innocent.

Related Terms: Strict Liability, Liability

In Hoy v Miller, Justice Golden of the Supreme Court of Wyoming tried his hand at summarizing the law:

"Absolute liability is liability without fault - liability for which there is no excuse.

"In other words, absolute liability is imposed upon certain conduct, regardless of whether or not such conduct is negligent.

"Even if liability is absolute, however, such liability extends only to damages proximately caused by the alleged harmful conduct."

In R v Canning, Judge White of the Saskatchewan Provincial Court wrote:

"A strict liability offence requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the impugned act. It is open to the accused to establish that he/she acted with due diligence in the circumstances of the case. If this can be established to the satisfaction of the court then the accused is entitled to an acquittal.

"An absolute liability offence only requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed an illegal act.... The mental state or belief of the accused is legally irrelevant to the outcome. Thus, if the offence is one of absolute liability then the accused does not have a defence of not knowing that what she was doing was illegal or being mistaken in her belief that what she was doing was, in the vernacular of ordinary people, legal.

"Courts have been loathe to classify offences as absolute liability offences because of the harshness of the result in the context where a citizen can be fined or incarcerated in the event of conviction. However, it must be noted that our courts have, in some very straightforward regulatory cases, found that the offences are indeed absolute liability offences. Examples from the reported cases would be such offences as driving a motor vehicle over the posted speed limit, driving while under an automatic revocation or hunting with another person’s license. In these instances, the law does not permit the accused to exculpate himself/herself by proving that he/she was free of fault."

In R v Metro News, Justice Martin wrote:

"(A)bsolute liability is commonly used to describe offences in which it is not open to an accused to avoid criminal liability on the ground that he acted under a reasonable mistake of fact which, if the facts had been as the accused believed them to be, would have made his act innocent. Even in offences of absolute liability, other defences such as insanity, automatism or duress are open to the accused."

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