INSANITY AS A DEFENCE UNDER CRIMINAL LAW
By- SUKANYA (BATCH- 2019-2024)
The human mind is very complex and plays a significant role in an individual’s life. The mind is not only given importance in psychology and philosophy, but it is also a significant component of the criminal justice system. The very basis for criminal law is a guilty mind which is referred to as mens rea. The maxim, “Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, embodies this principle, “It means an act itself is not a crime unless accompanied with a guilty mind.”[i]
Other than the concept of the guilty mind, there is another aspect of state of mind that is discussed in the penal code, i.e. insanity. The term insanity has various interpretations and definitions. However, with respect to this field of law, insanity is a defence that is available when an individual during the commission of the crime was suffering from severe mental illness and, hence not in a position to comprehend the consequences of his/her actions. “Punishing a person, who is not responsible for the crime, is a violation of the basic human rights and fundamental rights under the Constitution of India.”[ii]Thus in such circumstances, special provisions are provided under Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code.[iii] Hereinafter referred to as IPC, the defence of an insane person to not be held legally accountable for their actions. It is necessary to highlight that legal insanity is different from medical insanity, though, under certain circumstances, they might overlap one another. Awareness, circumstances and facts are taken into account while interpreting legal insanity.
Section 84 of the IPC[iv] determines the plea on the ground of insanity, provided the person at the time of doing the act was unaware and was in a situation wherein he/she could not comprehend the nature of the act whether his/her action was wrong and contrary to law.
There has been much ambiguity as to whether the ethical criterion needs to be included in this definition. The criteria for whether his/her action was wrong are different from whether he was in a position to know if it was contrary to law. There is much scope for misinterpretation of this particular point; thus, it needs to be more precise to curb the misuse of the section. There is a fine line between a person’s delusion and what he/she morally and ethically believes in. A judgement passed by Justice Beg can be referred for clarification, wherein he stated:
“The capacity to know a thing is quite different from what a person knows. The former is a potentiality, and the latter is the result of it. If a person possesses the former, he cannot be protected in law, whatever might result from his potentiality. In other words, what is protected is an inherent or organic incapacity, and not a wrong or erroneous belief which might be the result of a perverted potentiality.” [v]
If the accused is in a position that he can distinguish between whether his conduct is morally right or wrong but fails to take it into consideration and acts, then the crimes committed on the basis of his/her belief will not attract the defence of insanity. When the accused realises the grave nature of his act, which was contrary to the law and had committed the crime based on his moral and ethical ideologies, it does not come under the category of insanity. Since the ethical nature of the defence loses its purpose. A more precise definition needs to be drafted that covers the various dimensions of the term insanity, which includes the scenario where the person was in a situation where he or she was not in a rationale mindset and was unable to control his/her impulsive actions led by delusions and mental trauma. The case of Bapu v. State of Rajasthan tried to define to avoid the misinterpretation and misuse of the term insanity stated in Section 84. The judgement stated:
“The standard to be applied is whether according to the ordinary standard, adopted by reasonable men, the act was right or wrong. The mere fact that an accused is conceited, odd, irascible and his brain is not quite all right, or that the physical and mental ailments from which he suffered had rendered his intellect weak and affected his emotions and will, or that he had committed certain unusual acts in the past, or that he was liable to recurring fits of insanity at short intervals or that he was subject to getting epileptic fits but there was nothing abnormal in his behaviour, or that his behaviour was queer, cannot be sufficient to attract the application of this section.” [vi]
MEDICAL INSANITY AND LEGAL INSANITY
It is important to note that every mental insanity is not ipso facto exempted from criminal liability.[vii] There is no proper legal definition provided under Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code regarding the “unsoundness of mind”, which is categorised under the context of insanity. Nevertheless, the term insanity is a complex word comprised of various degrees and faucets of mental instability, which proves it challenging to provide a proper definition. This gives rise to the need to properly distinguish between the features of medical and legal insanity to establish a proper system of efficient and functional law. “From the medical point of view, it is probably correct to say that every man at the time of committing the criminal act is insane.”[viii] From the legal aspect, a person can plead the defence of insanity in circumstances wherein during the commission of the crime, he/she was not aware of the nature of his/her act and could not relate to whether his/her actions were contrary to law.
The circumstances of the commission of the crime for the defence of insanity plays a vital role. If a medically insane person during the commission of the crime was aware of the nature of his/her act, he could be held legally responsible for his crime. With relevance to legal insanity, a person during the commission of a crime could be insane, whereas proven perfectly sane with correlation to medical records in other circumstances. In exceptional circumstances, medical and legal insanity may overlap wherein the person who has a history of medical insanity was unaware that the nature of his/her actions was contrary to the court of law, are eligible to plead the insanity defence (medical or legal).
In addition to the circumstances of occurrence, the
person’s conduct and motive also play a role in differentiating medical and
legal insanity. The motivation for the person’s conduct is analysed with
relevance to medical insanity, whereas the person’s lack of motive is taken
into account with relevance to legal insanity.
From a legal standpoint, the criteria that need to
be analysed apart from the lack of motive and consequences is whether the
accused was aware of the nature of his brutal act. For a person to be found
legally insane, awareness, lack of motive, consequences and circumstances need
to be taken into account.
[i]Lanius,D., Strategc Indeterminacy in the Law 67 (2019).
[ii]Gostin LO & Larry OG, A Human Condition: The law relating to mentally Abnormal Offenders, 2 MIND, 21 (1977).
[iii]Indian Penal Code § 84 (1860).
[v]Lakshmi v. Stale, AIR 1959 All. 534.
[vi]Bapu v. State of Rajasthan, (2007) 8 SCC 66.
[vii]Barelal v. State, A.I.R. 1960 M.P. 102
[viii]Sher Singh v. Crown, AIR 1923 Lah. 508.