This is a single section from Chapter 10. Read the full chapter here.

Should the Crown be subject to criminal liability?

Government departments may be liable to criminal prosecution only if compelling reasons exist for doing so.


Important practical and legal policy issues have made it generally inappropriate to subject the Crown to criminal liability. There is a particular conceptual problem of the Crown punishing itself. As such, exposing the Crown to criminal liability is rare. Cabinet circular CO(02)4 provides further guidance on imposing criminal liability on the Crown.

However, in areas such as health and safety, the similarity of departments as employers to private employers, or as providers of facilities, has led to those concerns being bypassed to a limited extent (see the Crown Organisations (Criminal Liability) Act 2002). Officials should always identify why a criminal sanction is needed in light of the existence of other measures that promote government accountability, and identify why a particular sanction (such as a fine or conviction) better achieves that goal. Care must be taken not to inadvertently expose the Government or its employees to criminal liability. For example, a provision that provides that “it is an offence not to comply with any provision of this Act” would capture all breaches of the Act, including failures by the regulator to comply with administrative or technical requirements of the Act. Such matters may be more appropriately dealt with by judicial review or in accordance with the Government’s existing accountability processes.

Criminal offences are discussed more generally in Chapter 21. Judicial review is discussed in more detail in Chapter 25.

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