Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code talks about the joint liability of persons involved in a criminal act. It says that if more than one person is involved in a criminal act done to satisfy a common intention, then each of such persons will be liable in the same way as if it was done by him alone.
The ingredients of Section 34 are as follows
- There should be a criminal act;
- Several persons should do the act;
- The criminal act must be done to satisfy a common intention of all;
- There must be actual participation of all the persons in some way or the other in furthering the common intention.
When the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860, Section 34 at that time did not include the provision of common intention, and later an amendment was made in the year 1870 to include it. Intention occupies a very crucial place in criminal law. The term ‘intention’ is not defined anywhere in the Indian Penal Code, but Section 34 of it deals with common intention. It implies a pre-decided plan and acting in accordance to execute that plan. It comes into the picture before the commission of the act.
Section 34 is limited to a situation, where an offense requires a particular criminal intention or knowledge and is committed by more than one person who shares that intention. Each person who participates in the act with such knowledge or intention will be liable in the same way as if it were done by him exclusively with that intention or knowledge. The liability of all the individuals involved in this circumstance is called ‘Joint Liability.’
Joint liability occurs in the case when there is the existence of common intention in the criminal act done. If it can be shown that it was done by one of the accused persons in furtherance of the common intention of all, then the liability for the act may be imposed on any one of the persons in the same manner as if the act were done by him in his capacity. Court decisions have emphasized on the point that meeting of minds need not be something always very much before the incident, but could be something that may develop on the spot, at the very moment when the crime is being committed.
Proving that every one of the persons was involved in the actual act is irrelevant. The case of Barendra Kumar Ghosh v. King Emperor is one of the most important and earliest cases where the court convicted another person for the act of another done in fulfillment of common intention. A group of armed persons had entered the police station and demanded money from the postmaster, where he was counting it. They fired from the pistol at him, due to which he died on the spot. All of the accused were able to escape without taking money. The Police were able to catch Barendra Kumar Ghosh who was standing outside the post office keeping a check. Barendra on being arrested contended that he was only standing as a guard, but the Calcutta high court convicted him for the murder of the postmaster. His appeal to the Privy Council was also rejected.
There is also a general rule in the criminal jurisprudence that the courts cannot distinguish between the people involved in an activity and it is impossible to see what part is played by whom in the commission of the act, so each person is held jointly liable for the acts of another.
Common intention versus Similar Intention
A common intention can only be said to be formed when the intention of one is known to all others and shared by them. It does not mean the similar intention of several persons formed at the moment. The mere presence of the accused together is not sufficient to form a common intention to commit the offense. It is necessary that the intention of each one of ‘several persons’ be known to each other for constituting common intention; otherwise, it will be a similar intention. Similar intention can happen for several persons at the same time.
The distinction between a common intention and similar intention is a real one and if overlooked by courts, may lead to a miscarriage of justice. Section 34 can be invoked only when the accused shares a common intention and not one a similar intention. Unless the common intention is proved, individuals will be liable for their actions only. If there occurs any doubt, the benefit of the doubt is given to the accused.
Section 34 does not lay down a separate offense but defines the liabilities. Therefore, it is always read with other sections for framing of charges or while deciding the punishment. The maximum sentence for an offense would depend upon the main offense along with which Section 34 is applied. To bring this section into effect a prior meeting of minds need not necessarily be proved, but it may well develop on the spot as between several persons and could be decided based on the facts and circumstances of each case. There must be an ultimate objective, the fulfillment of which should be the goal of each person involved.