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Ignorance of the law as a defence to rape : the destruction of a maxim
journal contributionposted on 2012-08-01, 00:00 authored by Kenneth Arenson
In DPP v Morgan, the House of Lords correctly concluded that an accused who entertained a genuine belief that a woman was consenting to carnal knowledge of her person could not be convicted of the common law crime of rape as such a belief and the requisite mens rea to convict were mutually exclusive of one another. Though England and Wales have resiled from this position by virtue of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, s. 1 (b), which allows for conviction upon proof that the accused did not reasonably believe that the complainant was consenting, the Morgan principle has retained its vitality at common law as well as under the various statutory crimes of rape that exist throughout Australia, most notably the provisions of s. 38 of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic). Despite a long line of Victorian Court of Appeal decisions which have reaffirmed the Morgan principle, the court has construed s. 37AA(b)(ii) of the Act as leaving open the possibility of an acquittal despite the fact that the accused acted with an awareness that one or more factors that are statutorily deemed as negating consent under s. 36(a)-(g) of the Act were operating at the time of his or her sexual penetration; specifically, the court held that the foregoing factors do not necessarily preclude a jury from finding that the accused acted in the genuine belief that the complainant was consenting. This article endeavours to explain how the accused could be aware of such circumstances at the time of penetration, yet still entertain such a belief. The article ultimately concludes that such an anomaly can only be explained through a combination of the poor drafting of s. 37AA(b)(ii) and the court's apparent refusal to follow the longstanding precept that ignorance of the law is never a defence to a crime, ostensibly prompted by its adherence to the cardinal precept that legislation is not to be construed as superfluous.