This article discusses Crime and its elements. Criminal liability of a person is based on the fundamental principles of the commission of a wrongful act- actus reus, combined with a wrongful intention- mens rea. This principle has been embodied in the maxim “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, which means “an act does not make one guilty unless the mind is also legally blameworthy”.
Existence of a wrongful intention, which is not followed by an act prohibited by law, will not constitute a crime. Conversely, a wrongful act in the absence of a criminal intention cannot account for a crime.
The Indian Penal Code has included the aforementioned maxim in two primary ways:
- By the explicit mention of the required mens rea in the definition affixed to the offence
- Through Chapter IV of the Code which provides for “General Exceptions”
Glanville Williams in his book Criminal Law has given a wider interpretation to actus reus and an excerpt of it has been provided hereunder:
“When we use the term actus reus we include all the external circumstances and consequences specified in the rule of law as constituting the forbidden situation. Reus must be taken as indicating the situation specified in the actus reus as on that, given any necessary mental element, is forbidden by law.
In other words, actus reus means the whole definition of the crime with the exception of the mental element and it even includes a mental element in so far as that is contained in the definition of an act. This meaning of actus reus follows inevitably from the proposition that all the constituents of a crime are either actus reus or mens rea.”
The term ‘actus reus’ connotes to an overt act or the physical result of human conduct. It is distinct from the conduct which produces the result. For example, the death of a person will be referred to as the actus reus, however, the act of firing which caused the death of the person is the conduct which produced the actus reus. In brief, a crime is a result of an event and not the activity which results in the event. The criminal intention behind causing such result i.e. death is the mens rea.
This act must be a conscious and willful movement. Austin said, any movement which is not in furtherance of operation of will, is not a voluntary act. It is important to note that, only a voluntary act can result in the commission of a crime.
On the other hand, an act can be termed as involuntary, when the act was the control or operation of his mind. Therefore, where a person has been compelled by the exercise of force of circumstances to commit an act prohibited by law, he cannot be held liable for the consequences of the act.
Section 33 which provides for “Act” or “Omission” says:
“The word “act” denotes as well a series of acts as a single act: the word “omission” denotes as well a series of omissions as a single omission.”
Section 32 further stipulates that the words referring to an “act” will also denote “illegal omission”. The IPC thus, make such omissions punishable which are illegal in nature and will amount to actus reus. For instance, causing the death of a baby by deliberately refusing to feed the newborn child.
In this case, the unlawful act of homicide was not perpetrated by a positive act but a negative act or omission. However, a person can only be held guilty of an act or omission when he was placed under the duty to act and on the contrary with the requisite criminal intent, failed to fulfil it.
Section 36, provides for a situation where an act or an omission can constitute an offence. It says an offence can be committed, partly by an act or party by an omission. Further Section 39 defines the term “voluntarily” as, “caused 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.”
Act to Forbidden by Law
In order to impose criminal liability on a person, besides the existence of mens rea and actus reus, it is necessary that the act must be prohibited by law. In other words, the action must either be forbidden or commanded by law. For instance, a duly authorised executioner cannot be charged for the murder of a person after hanging a prisoner.
- Act Should Result in Harm
It is not necessary that harm is resulted due to an act for it constitute a crime. Offences like forgery, treason, perjury, inchoate or incomplete crimes do not require that harm be suffered or caused nor it is a part of the actus reus.
- Act to be Direct Cause of Harm
For offences, the harm is to established for the completion of such crime, then such harm must have been the causal effect to the act. In other words, the harm caused must be a direct result of the harm. The prosecution must prove that the harm was an immediate cause and not a proximate cause.
Causation in Crime
A number of factors lead to the causation an event. A factor is said to have contributed to the commission of an event if in the absence of such a factor the event would not have occurred. Therefore, a man is said to have caused the actus reus of a crime, if, that actus reus would not have taken place without the participation of the man in what was done.
There must be some causal link in between the conduct of the person and the forbidden result. A man is generally held guilty for the consequences of his action which were foreseen by him.
As mentioned in the aforementioned subheads, causa causans i.e. an immediate cause of the effect of his actions must be established. Further, the difficulty to detect a causal nexus between the act and the effect rises when there exist multiple causations.
Additionally, such cases require the establishment of certain things like negligence in the conduct of the person and then had the negligent act of the accused not taken place the crime would not have occurred.
Also, in cases where the result is too remote and accidental in its occurrence, then the criminal liability cannot be imposed.
In cases when the death of a person is caused due to medical treatment, it cannot be held that the medical treatment was improper unless there is evidence to prove the negligence of the doctor. The concept behind this is that the interference of a doctor is sought primarily to treat a person and hence his action would have contributed for minimum causation.
As far as explanation 2 affixed to Section 299 of IPC is concerned, it lays down the provision that an act causing death by a person shall be sufficient to criminally incriminate a person even if the death could have been avoided by immediate treatment and proper remedies.
A person must be deemed to have caused the death of another if his voluntary actions caused such injuries which could have been saved by adequate medical treatment, however he could not be saved, provided the doctor or surgeon was competent and administered such treatment in good faith.
Principle of Ordinary Hazard
For instance, a patient is being carried on an ambulance due to a traffic accident caused by a rash driver and then contracts fever due which his death occurs. Presuming that this death did not occur due to the weak condition of the patient after the accident, the driver cannot be imposed with the criminal liability of the death of the person. The reasoning behind this is that the effect of the accident was merely to put in the geographical position where another agency caused his death.
Principle of Reasonable Foresight
The principle of reasonable foresight is just the restatement of the idea that a man is presumed to intend the consequent effects of his act. The definition of “voluntarily” provided IPC embodies the principle, that a man is said to have brought about an effect if during the commission of such act he knew or had the reasons to know the likelihood of the impacts of his acts.
According to Section 300, a man is guilty of murder if his acts are such that if brought into exercise would in the ordinary course of nature result in fatality. Further, the section says, if an act is so imminently fatal that its commission in all the likelihood would cause the death of a person, then such a person is guilty of murder.
Hence, there two basic ingredients which must be satisfied under this principle:
- The act of the offender caused the result which was the natural consequence of such action
- Such natural consequence could have been foreseen by a reasonable man
The involvement of unexpected interference may pose a challenge while fixing the causation. Nevertheless, if the culpability is lucid, then an offender cannot be acquitted due to the presence of a mere twist. However, such complications can have an impact on the gravity and degree of the culpability of the offenders, depending upon the facts and the circumstances of the case.
In the case of Joginder Singh v State of Punjab, the accused’s sister was teased by the deceased Rupinder Singh. As a result of this, the two accused went to Rupinder’s house and shouted that they had come to take away Rupinder’s sister. In the meanwhile, the cousins of Rupinder interfered and in retaliation, they suffered blows on the neck by the accused. Thereafter the deceased began running towards a well into which he jumped and died of drowning as a consequence.
The Apex court after inspecting all the evidence observed that no way the accused could have driven the deceased to jump into the well as they were 15 – 20 feet away from him, so he was still left with the option to not jump into the well. Hence, the Apex court exonerated the accused citing that they could have caused the death of the deceased.
Moreover, the Indian Penal Code, makes a person criminally liable for engaging an innocent agent in order to commit a crime. A person will be absolved of culpability, if his actions merely gave rise to the occasion of the act of crime, however, was intervened by another person whose actions contributed to the direct and immediate cause of the crime. This scenario requires the presentation of adequate evidence that the first person’s actions had no direct bearing on the crime committed.
II. Mens Rea
Mens rea in layman terms is the motive behind the commission action. The underlying principle of the term mens rea is observed in the maxim “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea” which connotes to the idea that an action cannot be held to be guilty unless the mind is also guilty.
The basic concept behind giving regard to the criminal intent to establish criminal liability is that every person has the capacity and an opportunity to choose between what is right and what is wrong. Once a person makes a choice, he or she has to bear all the responsibility consequent to it. We may notice terms like, “intentionally”, “voluntarily”, “knowingly”, “reason to believe”, etc in the penal statutes, all which espouse the importance of taking into account the criminal intent before incriminating a person.
Apex court in the case of Nathulal v. State of Madhya Pradesh had observed:
“Mens Rea is an essential ingredient of a criminal offence..unless the statute expressly or by necessary implication excluded mens rea. The mere fact that the object of the statute is to promote the welfare of activities or to eradicate a grave social evil is by itself not decisive of the question whether the element of guilty mind is excluded from the ingredients of an offence.
Mens rea by necessary implication may be excluded from a statute only where it is absolutely clear that the implementation of the object of the statute would otherwise be defeated.”
 Glanville Williams, Criminal Law: The General Part, second edn. Stevens & Sons, 1961, p. 18.
 Benoychandra v. State of West Bengal  Cr LJ 1038 [Cal]
 Md Rangwalla v. State of Maharashtra AIR 1965 SC 1616
 Re Abor Ahmed 919370 Rang 384 [FB]
 AIR 1979 SC 1876
 Ravule Hariprasada Rao v. State,  SCR 322
 AIR 1966 SC 43