Mens Rea & its importance in Criminal Cases

What is meant by mens rea?

The term mens rea is a crucial ingredient in any crime. It is a mental element of the doer of the crime.

Mens rea refers to the guilty intention, knowledge, or state of mind of an accused in committing a crime. It has come to fore as an indispensable element of crime in tune with a Latin maxim which means, “there can be no crime without a guilty mind” (actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea).

An act done by a person becomes a crime only when it is done with a guilty intention or mental state, in normal course. In other words, an act done with absolutely no guilty intention or state of mind may not become a crime.

Statutory offences need no mens rea

Some offences, which comes under special laws such as the ones on food adulteration, cheque dishonor, tax evasion, food adulteration, misappropriation of public money, black marketing, misuse of public position etc, do not however require any trace of guilty intention to term those acts as criminal offences. Such offences are called statutory offences.

The legislature has the authority to make any act of such kind as an offence with absolute liability on the part of the doer. In such cases neither mens rea, nor any other state of mind is required, even though guilty intent is an essential ingredient of an offence normally.

In such statutory offences, an act done without any trace of guilty intention will constitute an offence. In those statutory offences, anyone doing an act itself is sufficient to make him a wrong doer and strict liability will be imposed on those wrong doers. Even if the person committing such statutory offences has no guilty mind, the statute makes it a crime by its very definition and the court will honour it. In such cases lack of mens rea cannot be pleaded as a valid defence by the accused.

The Supreme Court (SC), in R S Joshi v Ajit Mills Ltd, says penal consequences can be visited on acts which are committed with or without a guilty mind when absolute liability is imposed for proper enforcement of various provisions of law and acts without mens rea are made punishable.

Mens rea is not defined in IPC

In Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) the term mens rea or guilty intention is not explicitly defined. But it makes out the ingredient of mens rea in the definition of many offences chrystal clear, by carefully defining the offences with some words like intentionally, voluntarily, knowingly, dishonestly, fraudulently etc.  By using these words, the IPC makes the element of mens rea or guilty mind of the doer an essential ingredient in most of the offences.

So when an action of a doer is dishonest or fraudulent, negligent or rash, it reflects the guilty mind of the doer explicit and that makes his action a crime. If the definition of any offence does not expressly disclose any aspect of the intention of the doer, then mens rea is not an ingredient in such cases.

Motive, intention, knowledge & such other elements

Normally Mens rea evolves out of one’s motive, intention, knowledge etc. They constitute as essential elements of a guilty mind of an offender.

Intention is the state of mind of the person doing the crime with a particular purpose and foreseeing the consequences.

Motive, on the other hand, is an impelling state of desire that induces a person to do something. It is a hidden and underlying factor. Any fact that constitutes a motive or preparation for any fact in issue in a case is a relevant fact, under Section 8 of the Indian Evidence Act.

In short, motive is the reason behind the act, but intention is the state of guilty mind to break the law or commit the crime. Motive is not always an essential ingredient in a crime.

Knowledge is the understanding of the doer about the consequences of his criminal act.

Negligence is yet another element. It is the lack of due care of a prudent man in performing an act, which eventually ends up in a criminal consequence. A high degree of negligence causing harm to others is treated as criminal negligence, but low degree negligence will lead to civil remedies alone. Voluntarily is yet another term associated with mens rea and it refers to the action of an accused under his full control coupled with intention of doing it and sufficient knowledge of its consequences.

The SC, in R.Balakrishna Pillai v State Of Kerala (Case No: appeal (crl.)  372 of 2001) points out that in different criminal offences defined in different ways the element of mens rea may vary. Some require only recklessness or some other state of mind and some are even satisfied by negligence. The variety in fact goes considerably further than this in that not only do different offences make use of different types of mental element, but also they utilise those elements in different ways.

Application of intention & knowledge in crimes

What makes the killing of a person either a murder or a culpable homicide is the degree or intention behind the act.

An act of killing with a definite premeditated intention and sufficient knowledge of its likelihood of leading to death, then it is a clear case of murder. But an act done without such a definite intention and a clear knowledge of likelihood of death, it is considered a culpable homicide.

An act, which looks like a crime, doesn’t become a crime if there is no guilty intention on the part of the doer.  No act per se is a crime unless it is done with guilty intention.

In an instance of murder, the intention that comes out of the guilty mind of the accused in causing death of the victim is mens rea. If any act of a doer would make some consequences, such as death, highly probable, then it can be presumed that it was done with an intention.

Some acts of criminal nature exempted from punishment

To make something an offence there should be both intention and action on the part of the doer normally. If the person does the same act innocently then it cannot be termed a crime unless the statute specifically terms such an act a crime.

The Chapter IV of the IPC detailing the ‘General Exceptions’ excludes some specified set of acts having the nature of crimes from any punishment when they are committed without mens rea or guilty mind.

The acts with criminal nature but with no mens rea

If a person makes a way along the part of another person’s property mainly for getting an entry path into his own adjacent property, then that cannot be considered a criminal act of trespass. It can be considered an act that needs to be remedied by civil action. In such a case, the person makes entry into another one has no criminal intention or mens rea. Hence it cannot be treated as a criminal offence as such. It can only be considered a civil wrong.

Similarly, when a person destroys a fence under a mistaken belief that it was owned by him, then he does not commit any criminal offence. But it is only an act requires some compensatory civil remedy.

If a person enters another person’s toilet and uses it in utmost necessity it cannot be termed as a criminal act of trespass but an instance of civil wrong alone.

When a person takes away a property of another person under the mistaken belief that the property belongs to him, such an act cannot be termed a crime of theft.

Court can presume guilty intention

The Section 114 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (IEA) enables the court to make some discretionary presumptions relating to the guilty state of mind of an accused, if the natural course of events or natural human conduct based on the facts of the case, suggests the court to believe such a presumption.

That means if the court applies prudence to the facts or sequence of events in the natural manner and finds that there could be mens rea on the part of the accused then the court can go by that presumption. Such a legal presumption is not a conclusive piece of evidence, but the presumption can be rebutted by the defendant by contrary evidence.

In general, the court can accept the existence of any fact of a case only when it looks at the fact, through the eyes of a prudent man and concludes that there is reason to believe that it exists.

Not having mens rea is a good defence

Not having any sort of mens rea on the part of the accused in committing the alleged offence is a good defence the accused can raise in a judicial proceeding.

It can possibly be raised on account of unsound mind, intoxicated state, being a minor, doing any act in good faith, mistaken understanding of fact while performing the crime, etc.

The SC, in Nathulal v State of Madhya Pradesh, says that if the mental element of any conduct alleged to be a crime is absent in any given case, the crime so defined is not committed.

Related Judgments

  1. Nathulal v State of Madhya Pradesh (AIR 1966 SC 43)
  2. State of Maharashtra v M H George (AIR 1965 SC 722)
  3. R S Joshi v Ajit Mills Ltd (1977 AIR 2279)
  4. Balakrishna Pillai v State Of Kerala (Case No: appeal (crl.) 372 of 2001)