Legal Maxim of ‘Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea’
By Shweta Nair
An Act by itself does not amount to a crime unless it is accompanied by a guilty mind.
A crime consists of 2 elements:
Actus Reus i.e., Physical Element
Mens Rea i.e., Mental Element.
An act is the event subject to the control of human will.
There are three aspects of an act:
Origin- Example: Firing from the bullet.
Circumstances- Example: Presence of the victim in the shooting range.
Consequences- Example: Victim dying.
Actus Reus may be defined as such result of human conduct which the law seeks to prevent.
Characteristics of Actus Reus:
It is the result and not the conduct of an act.
It must be the result of a voluntarily conscious act.
Actus must be Reus i.e., prohibited by law.
It must be an act of the accused.
There must be a casual connection between the act and the harm which is forbidden by law.
Case- R v. Jordan
A stabbed B in the abdomen. B was promptly taken to the hospital and treated. The wound was almost killed but then B died subsequently. The court held that A was not responsible for B’s death as there is no casual connection between the act and the harm caused.
It may be the result of a positive or a negative act.
Case- Commonwealth v. Cali
A’s property accidently caught fire. A knowingly refrained from extinguishing the fire as he had insured his property. The whole building was destroyed. A was held guilty even for his negative act.
Mens Rea- Mental Element
It is also known as guilty mind.
Mental Elements which are necessary for a particular crime are:
Intention is for the knowledge of the act coupled with the desire of it. Person has the desire and foresight of the circumstances of the act. It is something that is internal, it goes on in the mind of the person. It is directly related to the act.
Motive is indirectly related to the act. It is an ulterior state of the person’s mind. If a person does an unlawful act, however his motive is, he will be held liable. The criminal liability of the accused is determined by taking into account his intention and not motive. Motive may be taken into account while determining the extent of punishment.
Knowledge is merely the awareness, the foresight or expectation of the consequences of ana ct. Here, it will be taken to mean that the person’s mental condition is proper since he knows the consequences of his act.
Negligence means a breach of a legal duty to take care. The standard of care accepted by law is the standard of a reasonable man which ordinarily regulated the conduct of human affairs i.e., doing something which a reasonable person would not do or failing to do an act which a reasonable person would do under similar circumstances.
Exceptions to the maxim:
Strict Liability- Under certain statutory offences, the requirement of Mens rea is specifically dispensed with and strict liability is imposed for an act in the interest of public safety and social welfare, irrespective of the state of doer’s mind.
Petty Offences- In case of petty offences, as it is difficult to prove Mens Rea, the statue has dispensed with Mens Rea on the ground of speedy disposal of cases.
Mistake of Law- This is based on the maxim- ‘Ignorance of Law is no excuse’. A mistake or ignorance of law cannot be an excuse for committing a crime. A person may earnestly believe that a particular act is not an offence but in reality, if it is an offence, then ignorance of law cannot be an excuse.
Per se wrongful act- When an act is apparently wrongful in itself, a wrongful belief in the existence of circumstances which would negative the liability is not an excuse.
Public Nuisance- An act of public nuisance is an obstruction to the public convenience or is a danger to the public health and safety. Strict Liability is imposed in case of public nuisance irrespective of whether the person intended it or not.
Cases which are criminal in form but civil in substance- There are several cases which are criminal only in form but in substance, they are a summary mode of enforcing civil rights.
Sir James Stephen, he criticizes this doctrine of Mens Rea as unnecessary and misleading. The doctrine originated when the various offences were not well0defined but now we have a set of well-defined offences and therefore, the doctrine of Mens Rea is unnecessary and confusing. The doctrine is misleading because it suggests that apart from all particular definitions of crime, such a thing exists as Mena Rea or guilty mind which is not true.