Widening the defense of Insanity in Indian Penal Code

Section-84 of the Indian Penal Code deals with the act of a person of unsound mind wherein it states that “Nothing is an offence which is done by a person, who at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing, what is either wrong or contrary to law.” To constitute a criminal liability, three elements must be proved: –

  1. Actus Reus
  2. Mens Rea
  3. Commission of a crime without a legal defense

As the fundamental maxim of criminal law states “Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea” which means that an act does not constitute guilt unless it is done with a guilty intention. Therefore, a person with unsound mind is not punished for his crime because of his inability to form Mens Rea and his lack of free will, intelligence and knowledge of the act. 

In spite of the fact that section-84 of the Indian Penal Code attempts to deal fairly with mentally ill wrongdoers, sometimes there are possibilities of false acquittals or convictions. And so, along these lines, there is a need for incorporating wider concepts within the section like the broadening of the concept of legal insanity with the incorporation of more aspects of medical insanity, irresistible impulse, automatism and diminished responsibility because the motive is to remove the crime and not the criminal. 

Legal Insanity v. Medical Insanity

The rationale of the law of insanity under section-84 has its source under Mc Naughten’s rules of 1843 in England. 

In January 1843, at the parish of Saint Martin, Daniel MC Naughten while laboring under insane delusion shot and killed Edward Drummond, the Prime Minister’s Secretary, believing him to be the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. Defence put forth the plea of insanity attesting that he was not in a sound state of mind at the time of commission of the act. Because of the adverse public reaction, the House of Lords decided to probe into the subject and so, a series of hypothetical questions on the topic of insanity were put before a bench of 14 judges in the House of Lords. In response to the answers, a legal definition of insanity was framed determining the criminal responsibility of the insane and were called as the M’Naghten Rules (1843). It states that “every man is to be presumed to be sane, and that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong”. To claim the defence of legal insanity under this test, one of the two distinct criteria must be met. Lord M’Cardie in well-known Ronald True’s trial also substantiated the M’ Naghten rules and says:- 

“The law assumes that a man is prima facie sane, he must satisfy you otherwise if he desires to escape the consequences of a serious crime.”

The courts however make a distinction between legal insanity and medical insanity. Not every person who is mentally ill ispo facto is exempted from criminal liability. As per section-84, unsoundness of mind is used to describe the conditions that affect cognitive capacity of an individual. A person is said to be medically insane if he suffers from any disease or disorder of mind. Medical insanity thus means the person’s consciousness in relation to himself. It also includes elements like fear, jealously, hatred, uncontrollable impulse driving a man to kill or wound, abnormality of mind or partial delusion, irresistible impulse or compulsive behaviour of a psychopath, recurring fits at short interval, epileptic fits etc, but these aspects are not taken into consideration in the eyes of the law as law only recognises those conditions as insanity which impairs the cognitive faculties of the mind. 

There are many cases that have been witnessed where the test of insanity from the legal point of view does not coincide with the medical one, which implies that a person who is considered as insane in the opinion of a medical expert cannot earn immunity from the criminal liability under section-84, IPC. 

One such case is of the Queen-Empress v Kader Nasyer Shah, where the accused was charged of murder for causing the death of eight years old boy, it was acknowledged that the accused had been in an unsound state of mind for some months preceding the incident. If the case was to be decided by medical test, then the accused would have to be acquitted. But as per M’Naghten rules, the test was that since the accused was conscious of the nature of his act, he must be presumed to have been conscious of its criminality. The conviction was then upheld. When prominence is attached to medical opinion, this distinction is perhaps sometime lost sight of the question in criminal trials is not insanity but irresponsibility. 

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