Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Mistake of Fact


By: Robin Pandey                                                                                   Date: 26/February/2022

(Sections 76 & 79)

The maxim lgnorantia Juris non excusat, Ignorantia facti excusat, is simple and intelligible enough. It is a general rule of English law that one must admit that ignorance of law could never be admitted as an excuse but ignorance of fact excuses all liability. Statutory Framework regarding Mistake of Fact. In Indian Penal Code Mistake of fact and mistake of law have been provided in Sections 76 and 79. These two Sections can be conveniently considered together.

“Section 76: Act done by a person bound, or by mistake of fact believing himself bound by law.

Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who is, or who by reason of a mistake of fact and not by a reason of mistake of law, in good faith believes himself to be bound by law to do it.

Ingredients of Section 79

 Section 79 deals with two class of cases wherein a person is excused from criminal liability on the ground of mistake of fact, viz.,

 (1) When a person is justified by law to do something and does it; or 

(2) When a person believes in good faith, owing to a mistake of fact, that he is justified to do something and does it.

 Distinction between Section 76 and Section 79

 Section 79 is complementary to Section 76. In fact, Section 79 should have been placed just after Section 76 and numbered as Section 77. Section 76 deals Cases where by reason of a mistake of fact the person under a mistake considers himself bound by law to act in a particular way, although on the true state of fact his act is an offence. Section 79 on the other hand, deals with cases where h reason of a mistake of fact the person under such mistake considers himself simply justified by law to act in a particular way. The anti-thesis between the two cases is involved in the words 'bound by law' in Section 76 and justified by law' in Section 79. Under Section 76 there is legal compulsion and under Section 79 there is legal justification. Under Section 76 a person acts because he believes he must act in a particular way, whereas under Section 79 a person thinks he has justification for action and acts accordingly. Thus, the distinction is between a real or supposed legal obligation and a real or supposed legal justification. 

Mistake vis-à-vis Ignorance

 The terms 'mistake' and ignorance' have generally been used interchangeably. But these words convey different meanings. Ignorance may be defined as lack of knowledge whereas mistake leads to wrong conclusions frequently caused by insufficient knowledge. Ignorance implies a total want of knowledge in reference to the subject matter. Mistake admits knowledge, but implies a wrong conclusion. Ignorance implies passiveness, mistake implies action. Ignorance does not pretend to know while mistake assumes to know. Mistake of fact always supposes some error of opinion as to the real facts; but ignorance of facts may be without any error, but result of mere want of knowledge or opinion. But from the decisions of the courts it would appear that these academic distinctions have not been applied by the courts. Mistake is treated as a species of ignorance. At best it is a temporary ignorance. Thus, ignorance includes mistake. but mistake does not necessarily include ignorance.

Mistake of Fact Meaning

 The expression "mistake of fact" is common to both Section 76 as well as Section 79, IPC. As put succinctly in Ratanlal and Dhirajlal's, "Mistake is not mere forgetfulness. It is a slip made, not by design, but by mischance. Mistake, as the term is used in jurisprudence, is an erroneous mental condition, conception or conviction induced by ignorance, misapprehension or misunderstanding of the truth, and resulting in some act or omission done or suffered erroneously, by one or both of the parties to a transaction, but without its erroneous character being intended or known at that time. Mistake of fact can take the following two forms: 

(a) mistake as to true identities; or

(b)  mistake in sensory perceptions such as temporary distortion of imagination.

 For example, a Police Officer who carries warrant for the arrest of A, finds B whom he honestly believes to be A, and arrests him. The police officer is not guilty of an offence. Similarly, A sees a young girl about to jump into the river; believing that the girl is about to commit suicide A grapples with her and drags her away. He is not guilty of molestation although it  may turn out that the girl was actually just sight seeing.

Mistake of Fact: Why is it excused? 

The criminal intention being the essence of crime, if the intent is dependent knowledge of particular facts, a want of such knowledge, not the result of carelessness or negligence, relieves the act of criminality. Justice Cave in R v Tolson, observed: "Honest and reasonable mistake stands in fact on the same footing as absence of the reasoning faculty, as in lunacy, or perversion of that faculty, as in lunacy." Ignorance and mistake of fact negative the criminal mind. If at all there is no knowledge of the fact, the accused reasons without reference to that fact and therefore it should be concluded that the fact did not exist at all; and similarly when a particular act is done under a mistaken notion of fact, the defendant reasoned with reference to this view and his responsibility will therefore be tested in the light of his belief. In both the cases the accused had the wrong effect produced on his mind regarding the situation in which he was acting. 

It appears that mistake of fact ought to be justified on the basis of the purpose of punishment. We punish a wrong-doer on the principle of retaliation or on the theory of prevention and reformation. None of these purposes is achieved if a person is punished for mistake of fact. We can never guard absolutely and most effectively against committing mistakes and can never prevent their frequent happenings. It is, therefore, necessary keeping in view the frailty of human mind that genuine mistake of facts be allowed to go unpunished.

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