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Mens rea, the Achilles’ Heel of Criminal Law

Autor: Michał Zacharski
Wydawnictwo: The European Legacy 23 (1-2)
Rok: 2018

The evolution of criminal law in Western legal systems is often portrayed as a path leading from objective to subjective notions of criminal responsibility. By examining the historical development of the notions of subjective responsibility, this article suggests that the function of a wrongdoer’s subjective mental state, in both its substantive and procedural aspect, as an element in the process of attributing criminal responsibility, remains much the same today as it was in antiquity. This is indicated by what subjectivity, as an essential condition of culpability, is said to imply: the distinction between intentional and unintentional acts. Although the notions of intent and malice aforethought are attested to in various sources on ancient Athenian law, there are several kinds of cases in which the role played by these aspects—traditionally referred to as mens rea —remain unsolved in contemporary jurisprudence and legal practice. Yet despite the difficulties of establishing facts in particularly complex criminal cases, setting the boundary between “intentional” and “unintentional” remains crucially important in determining criminal responsibility and thus in distinguishing the “licit” from the “illicit,” which is the very foundation of the rule of law.