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Keywords:

  • Responsibility;
  • Criminal Law;
  • mens rea;
  • subject;
  • history

This paper examines the way in which English criminal law’s conception of responsibility has changed since the eighteenth century, and explores the relationship between changes in legal framework, changes in processes of criminalisation and punishment, and broader social, political and economic changes. It argues that the development of ideas of individual responsibility for crime are responses to problems of co-ordination and legitimation faced by systems of criminal law, and that these problems can be expected to change according to the environment in which the system operates, with important factors including the distribution of political interests and economic power; the prevailing cultural and intellectual environment; the organisation and status of relevant professional groups and the vigour of alternative means of social ordering. Substantively, the paper explores the hypothesis that criminal responsibility has shifted from a conception founded in ideas of character to a capacity-based conception over the relevant period. Methodologically, the aim is to historicise the structure as well as the content of criminal law within a socio-theoretic framework, constructing a dialogue between criminal law theory of a doctrinal and philosophical temper and socio-historical studies of criminal justice.