Not every criminal act imposes criminal liability. It is the general rule that a person is presumed to have the knowledge about the nature and consequences of the act, thus can be held liable by the law. However, it is also well established that to hold a person criminally liable, there must be some subjective fault that can be attributed to him. It means that he must not only actively perform the act (actus reus) but also possess the guilty intention (mens rea) necessary to constitute a crime. A failure to prove these elements in an act leads to the acquittal of the accused.
There are certain defences that are provided by the law that are based on the premise that even though the accused has committed a criminal act, he cannot be punished as his actions were justified in those circumstances or he had no intentions to commit such offence. Chapter IV of the Indian Penal Code talks about General Exceptions under the law. The chapter spanning from sections 76-106 provides these exceptions that exculpate the criminal liability of such accused.
Section 6 of IPC lays that definition of all offences, penal provisions, and illustrations of the Act should be understood subject to the General Exceptions provided in Chapter IV.
Burden of Proof
As per Section 105 of the Indian Evidence Act, when a person is accused of committing a criminal offence, it is his duty to prove the existence of circumstances that bring his act under the ambit of General Exceptions under IPC to escape criminal liability. The court presumes the absence of any such circumstances. Prior to the enactment of this section, the burden to prove the existence of actus reus and mens rea of the accused, beyond a reasonable doubt, was on the prosecution.
The arguments of the accused to prove the absence of actus reus and mens rea are backed by various justifications and excuses and thus the General Exceptions can be broadly categorized as: Excusable Acts and Justifiable Acts.
When the law excuses certain offenders, even though their act constitutes a crime because they cannot be blamed for it, such acts are excusable acts. These are acts through which a mala-fide intention of the accused cannot be inferred. The accused lacks the guilty intention (mens rea) at the time of committing the offence and thus cannot be made liable. It includes-
- Mistake of Fact- Sections 76 and 79 talk about the exception of the mistake of facts. A person escapes criminal liability under this exception if the act done by him was not intended. It means that the accused lacked mens rea (guilty intention). It is however noteworthy that the mistake under these sections must be pertaining to the facts and not a mistake of law. This exception is based on the Latin maxim- ignorantia facti excusat, ignorantia juris non excusat which means ignorance of fact is excusable but ignorance of the law isn’t. Example- If A thought B to be a thief and in good faith, believing to be justified by law, seizes B to present him to the police, A has not committed any offence.
- Accident- This general exception is contained in Section 80. An accident indicates an event or incident that occurs inevitably and over which any person has no control. It is unavoidable even after exercising due diligence and care. It includes any act done while doing a lawful act. Nothing is an offence which is done by accident as the doer has no intention and knowledge of the consequences in doing the act. Example- Z on shooting at a bird with his gun, fires a bullet. The bullet reflected from a tree, hits X, causing him harm. Z cannot be held liable.
- Infancy- Section 82 and 83 talk about the exception of infancy. The exception of infancy is against any act committed by a child under seven years of age. Nothing constitutes an offence committed by a child under seven years of age. The law presumes that a child below seven years is doli incapax which means that he cannot constitute the required mens rea to commit a criminal act. This exception includes the act of a child above seven years and below twelve years based on the level of maturity. Example- S an infant of five years, pulls the trigger of a gun, and kills his father, S has not committed any crime.
- Insanity- According to Section 84, nothing is an offence done by a person who at the time of the performance of the act, due to the unsoundness of mind was incapable of understanding the nature and consequences of the act. The law expects every sane and normal human being to possess a certain degree of reasonability and responsibility towards their actions, however, the same cannot be expected from a person of unsound mind. Example- D stabs F with a knife, thinking it to be a game. It results in the death of F. D is not liable for committing the murder of F as he is unable to comprehend the nature of his act and the consequences following it.
- Intoxication- Sections 85 and 86 lay down the provisions of the exception of intoxication. This defence can be availed against an act that is done by the reason of intoxication. As per these sections, nothing is an offence, done by a person who at the time of doing such act was by the reason of intoxication, incapable of inferring the nature of the act and whether such an act is wrong or contrary to the law. It must be noted that the intoxication must be involuntary and the thing intoxicating him was administered to him against his will or without his knowledge.
Acts that are wrongful or contrary to law under normal circumstances but become tolerable or acceptable in certain circumstances are justifiable acts. These acts become justifiable when they are supplemented with exceptions to escape criminal liability.
- Judicial Acts- Judicial Acts or Act of a judge are the normal discharge of judicial powers by a judge within proper jurisdiction. Nothing under sections 77 and 78, is an offence which is done by a judge, acting judicially. This exception protects a judge where he proceeds irregularly in the exercise of his powers which is, or which he in good faith believes to be bestowed upon him by the law. Example- (i) A judge can give capital punishment to any criminal acting judicially. (ii) A judge passing the order of life imprisonment, believing in good faith that he has the jurisdiction to pass such orders.
- Necessity- Section 81 of the Act deals with the exception of necessity. It is an irresistible compulsion or a controlling force that drives a person to do any act which is done with the knowledge that it may likely cause harm but is done without the intention to cause such harm and to protect some other harm. Nothing under this section is an offence if it is done in good faith, with the intention of preventing some other harm to person or property. Example- A jumps on B to prevent him from a cart passing by which most likely would have injured B.
- Consent- The exception of consent is provided under sections 87-89 and 92. This exception is against the acts which are done by the consent of the victim or for the benefit of the victim. This exception is available for non- fatal offences where criminal acts have been committed with the consent of the victim. It means that the person consenting has done so consciously, deliberately, and with complete knowledge of the risk. Example- R and E decided to have a boxing match. In this agreement, there is an implied consent of both the parties to suffer harm. Thus, if E suffers injuries during the match, R has committed no offence.
- Communication- Under section 93, no offence is committed by a person who communicates in good faith and such dissemination of information causes any harm to the person to whom the communication is made. The two conditions required to escape liability is that the communication must be done in good faith and for the benefit of the person to whom the communication is made. Example- A doctor, in good faith tells B’s wife, A about his health issues which shocks A and causes her death. The doctor has not committed any offence because he has communicated in good faith.
- Duress- Nothing is an offence under section 94, which is done under duress. The law imposes no liability over a person who is compelled to do an act under a threat, which causes a reasonable apprehension of instant death. This section excludes offences against the state punishable by death. Example- M a security guard who was compelled to open the gates of the bank for the robbers to rob the bank, cannot be held liable.
- Trifles– Section 95 states that no offence is committed if the harm caused is so slight that a man of reasonable temper would not complain about it. This exception is based on the legal maxim De menimis non curat lex which means the law does not concern itself with trifles. Example- During an argument between A and B, A throws a file at B causing a minor scratch on his arm. A has not committed any offence.
- Private Defence- Sections 96-106 talk about the exception of Private Defence. As per these sections, no offence is committed by any person who is acting in his right of private defence. The law excuses any person who causes harm to some other person in order to protect his body or property. The right provided under these sections is qualified and not absolute and is backed by a number of restrictions. It must also be noted that the harm caused to the other person in order to protect one’s body or property must be reasonable. Example- A in order to protect his house from being robbed shoots at the thief in his leg. A is not liable as he was protecting his property.
This article brings out the basic understanding of the general exceptions contained in Chapter IV of the IPC. These exceptions are envisaged in the act to protect the accused and to help them avoid liability over acts they had little or no control. These exceptions extend to offences causing death of an innocent person to inflicting serious injuries, depending upon the circumstances. The main objective of the law makes is to provide a voice to the accused and to prevent him for being wrongfully convicted.
(Author: Shivani Agrawal, pursuing LLB from Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.)