Mens Rea and Actus Reus – Indian perspective
Meaning of Mens rea
Mens rea is a Latin term which essentially means “guilty mind”. Mens rea is the most important distinguishing element which attaches great importance to the state of mind of the accused person at the time of the commission of a crime.
It is important to note that no act is criminal by itself unless it is accompanied by a mens rea. This is best represented by the common law maxim; Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, which translates to “the act is not guilty unless the mind is guilty”.
Unless the accused can be proven to have acted with criminal intent he cannot be held liable under the criminal law. Criminal liability requires the presence of mens rea necessarily whereas under civil law proof of injury is sufficient to attract liability.
Constituent elements of Mens rea
- The mental condition of an accused person stems from his thought process consisting of motive and volition.
- Motive is not to be confused with intention as motive is the reason for intention. All intentions and actions are preceded by some motive.
- Volition is the driving force which impels a person to develop some intention in order to achieve the desired motive. So volition serves as the link between motive and intention which are reflective of the ulterior and immediate objective respectively in the commission of an act.
- Presence of motive supports the prosecution case but the absence of motive doesn’t weaken it. The prosecution may prove the motive behind the crime if it helps them to establish their case, as a matter of circumstantial evidence, but they are not legally bound to prove motive because “a motiveless crime is still a crime”.
- Under criminal law presence of intention which is a subjective fact is more important than motive and is to be deduced from the facts and circumstances of the case.
- Presence of a good motive does not protect the accused person where the act itself is unlawful and similarly presence of bad motive is not sufficient to punish an accused where the act is not an illegal act. For eg. If someone takes money from another with a good intention but without consent, the act would still amount to theft.
Degrees of Mens rea
- Mens rea is a blameworthy condition of mind constituted by the intent or purpose and knowledge of consequences.
- The degree of mens rea indicates the degree of mental involvement in the crime and bears a direct relation to the culpability attached to any crime.
- Higher the degree of mens rea in a crime higher would be the punishment attached to the same. For example an act of intentionally killing a human being, which would constitute the offense of murder would attract the highest punishment under law owing to the highest degree of mens rea associated with the same, on the other hand, if a person accidentally hits someone resulting in such person’s death then he would not be liable for any crime in the absence of mens rea on his part.
Intention is indicative of purposefulness of an act and where a person intends to do some act purposely he is to be held liable for the resultant consequences.
Intention is the conscious objective to do an act or cause it to be done with a positive desire to cause some consequences.
Intention is thus a state of mind which exists along with the knowledge on one’s actions. This is the reason that intention is treated as the highest degree of mens rea.
A prominent case regarding the same is Rawalpentu Venkalu v. State of Hyderabad, 1956, in which the accused had set fire to the single room in which the deceased was sleeping after locking the door of the room from outside and also prevented other villagers from going to the rescue of the helpless man being burnt alive in that room. It was subsequently held that the intention to kill the deceased was clear and the accused should accordingly be punished.
Knowledge signifies awareness, knowledge of certainty of the effect.
A person acts knowingly when he is practically certain of the consequences.
Knowledge is the second highest degree of mens rea after intention. It attracts slightly lesser culpability where it exists independent of intention.
Under the law, every reasonable and sane person is presumed to know the nature and consequences of his actions. Some degree of knowledge is attributed to every sane person.
The degree of knowledge which any particular person can be assumed to possess does vary. For instance, the same degree of knowledge cannot be attributed to an uneducated as to an educated person. But to some extent knowledge must be attributed to everyone who is sane.
Thus if someone does an act, he cannot be allowed to plead that he was not aware of the consequences that his act might entail. Although if the consequences are too remotely related to his actions he might be spared liability under the criminal law. For escaping liability the onus would rest on the accused person to prove that the consequences were such as could not be reasonably foreseen by any person of ordinary prudence.
Intention cannot exist without knowledge but the converse is not true. Knowledge may exist with or without intention. In order to possess and to form an intention, there must be a capacity for reason. When by some extraneous force the capacity for reason has been ousted the capacity to form an intention is unseated too. But knowledge stands upon a different footing.
A prominent case regarding intention is Emperor v. Dhirajia, 1940 wherein Dhirajia, a young woman left her home with her six months old baby in her arms on account of her husband’s ill-treatment. After she had gone some distance from her home she turned around and found her husband pursuing her. She panicked and in that state jumped into a nearby well along with her baby in her arms in order to escape from her abusive husband. By the time the woman was pulled out the baby had died.
It was held that the woman was guilty of culpable homicide. The court observed that the woman did not intend to cause the death of her child but knowledge could be attributed to her that such an imminently dangerous act as jumping down the well was likely to cause the child’s death. However primitive a man or woman may be, and however frightened he or she may be, knowledge of the likely consequence of so imminently dangerous an act must be supposed to have remained with him or her.
Rashness means “wantonness” or “recklessness”. Recklessness signifies a state of being mentally indifferent to obvious risk.
This is a higher degree of negligence in which although there is consciousness of the probable consequences still the accused overlooks the substantial risk.
Recklessness can become knowledge where the accused despite being aware of the consequences not only continues with his actions but also hopes that his actions will result in some forbidden consequence.
In recklessness, the accused does not want the forbidden consequences to happen and hopes that they won’t.
Every individual is supposed to exercise a minimum degree of care and caution while doing any act. When the conduct of any individual is found to be lacking in respect of the due care or precautions required to be taken when such a person is said to be negligent.
Negligence is characterized chiefly by inadvertence, thoughtlessness, and inattention.
Negligence under law implies the omission to do something to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those ordinary considerations which ordinarily regulate human affairs, would do or the doing of something which a reasonable and prudent man would not do.
Negligence is the failure to use such care as a reasonably prudent and careful person would use under similar circumstances. Negligence refers to the conduct which falls below the standard established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risk of harm.
The jurisprudential concept of negligence differs in civil and criminal law. What may be negligence in civil law may not necessarily be negligence in criminal law. For an act to amount to criminal negligence, the degree of negligence should be much higher i.e., gross or of a very high degree. Negligence which is neither gross nor of a higher degree may provide a ground for action in civil law but cannot form the basis of a prosecution under criminal law.
Mens rea under Indian Penal Code
The term Mens rea has not been used anywhere in the entire length and breadth of the IPC but its corresponding terms such as intentionally, knowingly, willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, dishonestly have been employed in the code to represent the mental involvement of the accused in the commission of a crime. These terms have been defined under Section – 24 (Dishonestly), Section – 25 (Fraudulently), and Section – 39 (Voluntarily)
These terms are all indicative of the state of mind of the accused at the time of the commission of the crime and even though they differ from each other in meaning and content, they are all indicative of the requisite mens rea. Thus IPC does not negate the requirements of mens rea but requires specific mens rea for specific offenses.
Each of these expressions is capable of more than one meaning so it is important to understand it with respect to the context in which it appears.
Meaning of actus reus
Actus reus is a Latin term which means ‘guilty act’.
Actus reus is the physical component of the crime. It includes acts contrary to the law.
Kenny defines actus reus to be such result of human conduct as the law seeks to prevent.
The human conduct may consist of commission or omission of certain acts.
All our acts are the external manifestations of human will.
According to Section-32 of the IPC the term ‘act’ includes illegal omission also. Thus actus is constituted when a person does something that he is not supposed to do under law or omits to do something that he is legally obliged to do.
For example, if A’s neighbor dies of starvation he is not liable for failure to feed him, but if he lets his wife or child who is totally dependent on him to die of starvation, he will be held liable for non-performance of his legal duty to provide for their sustenance.
Under Section-33 of the IPC, the term ‘act’ includes a single act as well as a series of acts and the term ‘omission’ includes a single omission as well as a series of omissions. For example, the act of slow poisoning would require a series of acts providing poison in small and measured doses in order to arrive at the desired object. In such cases, even a single act out of the series of acts out of the series of the acts would entail the same liability as the completed act.
Actus to be voluntary
The common law proposition, “actus me invito factus non est mens actus” means, an act done by me against my will is not my act at all.
According to Section-39 of the IPC, a person is said to cause an effect voluntarily when he causes it by means whereby he intended to cause it, or by means which, at the time of employing those means, he knew or had reason to believe to be likely to cause it.
Thus if the effect of a person’s actions is a probable consequence of the means, he is believed to have voluntarily caused such effect, whether he really meant to cause it or not.