Criminal law, also known as penal law, pertains to crimes and punishment. It thus regulates the definition of and penalties for offences found to have a sufficiently deleterious social impact but, in itself, makes no moral judgment on an offender nor imposes restrictions on society that physically prevent people from committing a crime in the first place. Investigating, apprehending, charging, and trying suspected offenders is regulated by the law of criminal procedure. The paradigm case of a crime lies in the proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a person is guilty of two things. First, the accused must commit an act which is deemed by society to be criminal, or actus reus (guilty act). Second, the accused must have the requisite malicious intent to do a criminal act, or men’s rea (guilty mind). However, for so-called “strict liability” crimes, an actus reus is enough. Criminal systems of the civil law tradition distinguish between intention in the broad sense (dolus directus and dolus eventualis), and negligence. Negligence does not carry criminal responsibility unless a particular crime provides for its punishment.
A depiction of a 17th-century criminal trial, for witchcraft in Salem
Examples of crimes include murder, assault, fraud and theft. In exceptional circumstances, defences can apply to specific acts, such as killing in self-defence or pleading insanity. Another example is in the 19th-century English case of R v Dudley and Stephens, which tested a defence of “necessity”. The Mignonette, sailing from Southampton to Sydney, sank. Three crew members and Richard Parker, a 17-year-old cabin boy, were stranded on a raft. They were starving and the cabin boy was close to death. Driven to extreme hunger, the crew killed and ate the cabin boy. The crew survived and were rescued, but put on trial for murder. They argued it was necessary to kill the cabin boy to preserve their own lives. Lord Coleridge, expressing immense disapproval, ruled, “to preserve one’s life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it.” The men were sentenced to hang, but public opinion was overwhelmingly supportive of the crew’s right to preserve their own lives. In the end, the Crown commuted their sentences to six months in jail.
Criminal law offences are viewed as offences against not just individual victims, but the community as well. The state, usually with the help of police, takes the lead in prosecution, which is why in common law countries cases are cited as “The People v …” or “R (for Rex or Regina) v …”. Also, lay juries are often used to determine the guilt of defendants on points of fact: juries cannot change legal rules. Some developed countries still condone capital punishment for criminal activity, but the normal punishment for a crime will be imprisonment, fines, state supervision (such as probation), or community service. Modern criminal law has been affected considerably by the social sciences, especially concerning sentencing, legal research, legislation, and rehabilitation. On the international field, 111 countries are members of the International Criminal Court, which was established to try people for crimes against humanity.