This article has been written by Oishika Banerji of Amity Law School, Kolkata. This article provides a detailed analysis of the legal maxim, ‘actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea’.
This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.
The Latin expression ‘actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea’, loosely translated as “an act does not render a man guilty of a crime unless his mind is equally guilty,” expresses a foundational concept in criminal law. This means that proving criminal culpability necessitates not only the presence of the actus reus and the mens rea, but also the coincidence or concurrence of the mens rea with the conduct that creates the actus reus. This article aims to explore the concerned maxim with respect to the criminal laws in India.
Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea
The Supreme Court of India while deciding on the case of C.K. Jaffer Sharief vs State (Thr C.B.I.) (2012) had observed that an individual’s criminal culpability would be attached if they broke the law. The norm, however, is not absolute, and it is subject to the constraints set out in the Latin maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea. It means that there can’t be a crime without a criminal mind. To hold someone criminally responsible, it must be proven that their actions resulted in an illegal act and that their actions were accompanied by a legally blameworthy mental attitude. As a result, every crime has two components, a physical element and a mental aspect, i.e. actus reus and mens rea respectively.
Mens rea is the source of the Latin maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea. Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea clarifies the application of mens rea in criminal law. It asserts that a person is only guilty of committing a crime if the conduct is done with the purpose to commit a crime. This maxim is used to judge whether certain conduct is illegal or not. Crimes done with a particular intent, rather than unforeseen or inadvertent acts, are subject to harsher penalties. However, no violation of the law may go unpunished.
The origins of this adage are yet unknown. Pollock and Maitland tracked the earliest and most distant reference to this maxim to St. Augustine, but they were unable to provide a sufficient context for the maxim discovered. This principle was later acquired from contemporary theology by Lord Edward Coke, and it is now universally used in the common law. He traced the origins of this aphorism back to St. Augustine’s Sermon 180. In the sermon’s body, St. Augustine discusses an instance of perjury. In one instance, he talks of a man who was asked if it rained in a certain location. The man believed it did not rain but had further believed it was in his best interests to testify that it did. It did, in fact, rain there, but the man was unaware of this and believes it did not. The man, according to Augustine, was, therefore, a liar.
Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea under the Indian Penal Code, 1860
The maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea has been integrated into the Indian Penal Code, 1860 in two basic ways:
- Through express inclusion of the required state of mind (mens rea) in the definition of an offence.
- Through ‘General Exceptions’ enumerated in Chapter 5 of the Code, some of which, such as mistake of fact, accident, infancy, and insanity, deny the existence of mens rea.
Exceptions of actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea
In certain situations, the law can create offences based only on the physical act, disregarding ‘the state of mind’ of the person committing the crime. These situations are likewise punished and are considered exceptions to the general rule of actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea. In basic terms, a crime for which mens rea is not a necessary criterion is an exception to this rule.
While hearing the case of Ranjit D. Udeshi v. the State of Maharashtra (1964), the Supreme Court of India observed “We do not accept the notion that the prosecution must establish that the person who sells or holds for sale any obscene object knows that it is obscene before he can be declared guilty”. As a result, mens rea is less significant than the act committed. If obscene material is discovered in a person’s possession, he will be prosecuted under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. It is not necessary to show his purpose or awareness of the obscene material.
Ignorance of law
Because every citizen and non-citizen is expected to know the laws of the nation they are in or visiting, ignorance of the law cannot be used as a justification to commit a crime. As a result, in such circumstances, the existence or lack of purpose is not taken into account, making it an exception to the rule.
In the case of the State of Maharashtra v. Mayer Hans George (1964), the Indian Government had issued an order on November 24th, banning gold transportation outside of India in order to save foreign exchange and combat smuggling. The appellant, M.H George, a German national, boarded an aircraft in Zurich on November 27th to travel to Manila. On the 28th of November, the plane made a stopover in Bombay, where he was apprehended by a customs official with 34 kg of gold. He was held liable under Sections 8 and 23 of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1947. Later, the matter went to the Bombay High Court, where he was acquitted since he had been exposed to the law recently and, as a German national, he was unaware of the Indian legislation and had no intention of smuggling the gold. However, when the matter went to the Supreme Court, he was found guilty since ignorance of the law could not be used as an excuse, even though he had no intention of smuggling the gold.
A public nuisance is a criminal offence in which an act or omission obstructs, harms, or causes trouble to the general public’s right. It may also be described as conduct that jeopardises the broad public’s interest or comfort. In such circumstances, strict responsibility is applied since the public’s interest is jeopardised. As a result, these offences are penalised whether or not there is a mental purpose.
Petty offences are the least serious kind of offences. When it comes to minor offences like running a red light, proving the mens rea behind such an act might be challenging. As a result, in such instances, acts such as that of jumping the red light may be considered criminal. As a result, it is an exception to the general rule of actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea.
Strict liability offences are those in which the prosecution does not need to show that the defendant behaved with a guilty mental state since the conduct is sufficient to establish the crime. The activities that fall under these categories are damaging to society or the State. For example, under Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, rape is defined as an act of sexual intercourse without consent. In this situation, even if mens rea is not required, the physical act alone is sufficient to convict a person under this provision.
A criminal purpose cannot be attributed to a person who, due to a mental illness or immaturity, is unable to comprehend the nature of the conduct he has performed or to discern between good and evil. As a result, the defence of insanity is an exception to the rule of actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea. The essential precept of criminal law, actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, is embodied in Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
While discussing the case of Hari Singh Gond v. the State of M.P. (2008), the Supreme Court of India had viewed that in circumstances of suspected insanity, Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 establishes the legal standard for determining culpability. In the aforementioned Code, there is no definition of ‘unsoundness of mind.’ The courts have largely equated this term with insanity. However, there is no clear meaning of the term ‘insanity.’ It is a phrase that is used to characterise various levels of mental illness. As a result, a mentally ill individual is not automatically free from criminal liability. It’s important to distinguish between legal and medical insanity. A court of law is concerned only with legal insanity and not medical insanity. The burden of proof is on the accused to show his insanity, which arises under Section 105 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, and is less onerous than the prosecution’s burden of proof to prove that the accused did the act for which he is charged.
The Madhya Pradesh High Court while deciding the case of Ram Bahadur Thapa v. the State Of M.P. (2021) had viewed that under Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, a person is immune from culpability for an act committed due to insanity if, at the time of the act, he is either incapable of understanding;
- The nature of the conduct, or
- That he is doing something that is either improper or illegal.
The accused is protected not only when, on account of insanity, he was incapable of knowing the nature of the act, but also when he did not know either that the act was wrong or that it was contrary to law, although he might know the nature of the act itself. He is, however, not protected if he knew that what he was doing was wrong, even if he did not know that it was contrary to law, and also if he knew that what he was doing was contrary to the law even though he did not know that it was wrong. The onus of proving unsoundness of mind is on the accused.
The term “vicarious liability” refers to a situation in which the master is held liable for the actions of his servant while on the job. If the servant has committed a criminal offence without the master’s knowledge, this general norm becomes an exception under the maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea. The servant’s condition of mind shall not be blamed on the master in such a circumstance. This was the finding in the notable case of Chisholm v. Doulton (1889).
The Latin maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea have been playing the role of a catalyst in criminal law. The very essence of the criminal law system has been embodied in this maxim. This maxim has not only confined itself in criminal statutes but also in its practical implementation has been reflected in several judgments discussed in this article. Overall, the criminal law system would have been paralysed if this maxim would not have come into existence.
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