Research Article

Bentham on Presumed Offences


a1 University of Virginia [email protected]


In the Principles of the Penal Code, Jeremy Bentham described offences that he labelled presumed or evidentiary. The conduct penalized under such offences is punished not because it is intrinsically wrong, but because it probabilistically indicates the presence of an intrinsic wrong. Bentham was sceptical of the need to create offences, but grudgingly accepted their value in light of deficiencies in procedure and the judiciary. These days the scepticism is even greater, with courts and commentators in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere believing that such ‘proxy’ offences deny a defendant the right to establish that he did not engage in the conduct that the presumed offence probabilistically but not necessarily indicates. On closer analysis, however, such scepticism appears unjustified. Almost all offences, and indeed almost all legal rules, are premised on a probabilistic relationship between the behaviour the rule encompasses and the behaviour that is the rule-maker's real concern. Presumed offences may make this relationship especially obvious, but it is a relationship that exists whenever the law operates by the use of rules.