Regina v. Prince

L.R. 2 Cr. Cas. Res. 154 (1875)

Quick Summary

Henry Prince (defendant) was convicted for taking fourteen-year-old Annie Phillips (plaintiff) away from her father’s custody, believing she was eighteen. The central issue revolved around whether Prince’s belief could exempt him from liability under the law criminalizing taking an unmarried girl under sixteen without guardian consent.

The Court for Crown Cases Reserved upheld the conviction, concluding that ignorance or mistaken belief about age does not provide a defense against the charge defined by statute.

Facts of the Case

Henry Prince (defendant) was prosecuted for taking Annie Phillips, a young girl of fourteen, out of her father’s possession without consent. According to the law at the time, this was a misdemeanor if the girl was under sixteen years of age.

During his trial, it was established that Annie appeared much older than her actual age and had informed Prince that she was eighteen, leading him to believe she was of legal age to consent. Despite these facts, the jury convicted Prince.

The core of the dispute rested on whether Prince’s belief that Annie was over sixteen could be considered a defense under the statute. This case examines the legality of Prince’s actions under the Offences against the Person Act of 1861 and whether a reasonable mistake regarding age could absolve him of criminal responsibility.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Henry Prince was charged and convicted at trial for unlawfully taking an unmarried girl under sixteen years of age.
  2. The jury found that despite Prince’s belief that the girl was eighteen, based on her appearance and her statements, he was still guilty.
  3. Prince appealed the conviction to the Court for Crown Cases Reserved, arguing that his reasonable mistake regarding her age should quash the conviction.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a defendant’s bona fide and reasonable belief that a girl was over the age of sixteen can be a defense to a charge of unlawfully taking an unmarried girl under sixteen from her guardian.

Rule of Law

The statute in question criminalizes the act of taking an unmarried girl under sixteen out of her guardian’s possession without consent. It does not provide exceptions or defenses based on the abductor’s knowledge or belief about the girl’s age.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Court held that the act of taking an underage girl was in itself wrong and that ignorance of the girl’s actual age did not constitute a defense under the statute. The Court emphasized the protective purpose behind the legislation and reasoned that allowing a defense based on a mistaken belief would undermine this purpose.

The judges determined that anyone taking a girl from her guardian does so at their own risk regarding her age, with no allowance for mistake or belief. The majority opinion was that ‘unlawfully’ in the statute meant without lawful cause or justification, which did not extend to a mistaken belief about age.

The broader implications of establishing such a defense were considered, including potential harm if individuals could evade criminal responsibility on the grounds of reasonable but erroneous beliefs about age.


The Court affirmed Prince’s conviction, holding that a mistaken belief about the girl’s age does not constitute a lawful defense against the charge.

Dissenting Opinions

Brett, J., dissented, arguing that if Prince’s belief about the girl’s age had been correct, no offense would have been committed, and thus his reasonable belief should negate the ‘unlawfulness’ of his actions under the statute.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Court for Crown Cases Reserved affirmed that a defendant’s reasonable but mistaken belief about a victim’s age is not a defense in cases of abduction under the Offences against the Person Act of 1861.
  2. Protective statutes such as this one are designed to safeguard minors and do not accommodate defenses based on subjective beliefs or appearances regarding age.
  3. Dissenting opinion highlights a concern for potentially criminalizing individuals who acted in reasonable but mistaken belief about age-related aspects of the law.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What legal implications arise when someone relies on a mistaken belief regarding a law's specific requirement?

In cases where a law requires specific factual circumstances, such as age, and an individual acts on a mistaken belief about those facts, the legal system generally does not excuse the person’s actions. The rationale is to encourage diligence and prevent ignorance from being used as a defense. Such mistakes are typically classified as mistakes of fact, which in certain instances can be exculpatory, but this largely depends on the nature of the offense and legislative intent.

  • For example: If an adult purchases alcohol for a person who presented a fake ID showing they were of legal age, the adult could still face charges despite the mistaken belief about the minor’s age.

How might strict liability principles apply to offenses that do not incorporate an individual's state of mind into the legal standard?

Strict liability offenses hold individuals accountable for their actions regardless of intent or knowledge concerning specific elements of the crime. In such cases, it is irrelevant whether the defendant knew or believed certain facts; if the action was performed, liability attaches. This is common in regulatory offenses or where public welfare is at stake. It simplifies prosecution by removing the burden of proving mens rea (guilty mind) and underscores that carelessness can have serious consequences.

  • For example: Traffic violations, like speeding, often impose strict liability: Even if a driver mistakenly believes they are within the speed limit, they are still liable for speeding if their actual speed exceeds the legal maximum.

In what way can legislative intent affect the interpretation and application of laws concerning mistake of fact defenses?

The intent behind legislation plays a crucial role in determining whether a mistake of fact can be used as a defense. Courts often look at the purpose of the statute to decide if allowing such a defense would undermine its goals. If the law aims to protect certain groups or prevent specific harms regardless of the defendant’s awareness or beliefs, a mistake of fact defense may not be permitted. Legislators may also explicitly indicate whether mistakes are admissible as defenses within the statutory language.

  • For example: In child protection statutes, legislatures often intend to safeguard minors categorically, leaving no room for defenses based on an honest but mistaken belief about a child’s age.


Last updated

Was this case brief helpful?

More Case Briefs in Criminal Law