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Yesterday’s Heritage Crime Test highlighted how the punishment for bulldozing the Priddy Circle was pretty low compared with other cases. In fact latest accounts suggest the punishment at Gelt Woods, Cumbria including costs was double what we said and not far off a million pounds! Yet the two cases have much in common. A very rich man. Damage done by employees. The Court accepting they didn’t authorise it themselves. The suspicion it was done to improve the value of the land. In each case the accused paying for “restoration”…. So how come the big difference in punishment? Awful though the Gelt Wood case was, flora regenerates whereas unique archaeology doesn’t. One might expect Priddy to attract a massive punishment, not Gelt Woods.

Priddy, after being bulldozed. The grass has started to grow back, the archaeology hasn't.

Priddy, not long after being bulldozed. The grass had started to grow back, the archaeology hadn’t.

It’s because, it seems, that unauthorised work on a site of special scientific interest is a “strict liability” offence, i.e, defendants can be convicted even though they were genuinely ignorant of one or more factors that made their acts or omissions criminal. They may therefore not need to be culpable in any real sense (there is not even criminal negligence). These laws were created in the 19th century to improve working and safety standards in factories where few prosecutions happened because of the difficulty of proving mens rea (a “guilty mind”) and they increased the number of successful prosecutions. They tend to be used for two purposes, both of which ring a bell with those of us that see the ploughing out of barrows and such-like as an under-punished crime:

a. to enforce social behaviour where minimal stigma attaches to a person upon conviction and
b. where society is concerned with the prevention of harm, and wishes to maximise the deterrent value of the offence.

So maybe that’s the answer. If we want to prevent harm and to maximise deterrence (which were the two main issues that arose out of Priddy) we could make such cases strict liability offences. Of course, that would involve the public and the legislators being convinced that preservation of certain unique heritage assets is vital, a stage we haven’t fully reached yet.


August 2013

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