Author:- Isiri Rajaneesh
Insanity, a term that has a disparate meaning in disparate specializations. In the medical domain, insanity is defined as ‘ a severely disordered state of the mind, usually occurring as a specific disorder’ In the legal domain, insanity refers to a mental defect or disease that prevents a person from understanding and appreciating the wrongfulness of his or her actions or to distinguish right from wrong. In the realm of law, two of the four fundamental elements which constitute a crime are mens rea i.e. guilty mind/intention and actus reus i.e. guilty/illegal act and the paramount principle ‘ Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea’– which means that an act does not make anyone guilty unless there is criminal intent or a guilty mind – accentuates that for an act to be illegal, the physical feat ( actus reus ) alone is not sufficient. The act must also be done with a guilty mind (mens rea) i.e., in order to convict a perpetrator, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the criminal act was committed a criminal intention.
The foundation for the defence of insanity lies in the aforementioned principle. When an individual, who lacks sufficient mental capacity to devise a criminal intent or who, due to the effect of his or her insanity, does not have a guilty mind and is incapable of understanding the nature of his or her act, commits a crime, the plea of insanity – prescribed in section 84 of the IPC- can be taken to provide immunity to that individual. This article is going to peruse the facets of section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
While the defence of insanity has been in existence for many centuries, it was recognized as a plausible defence to a criminal charge in the 14th century by the English courts. The first test ( referred to as the wild beast test ) to determine insanity as a cogent defence was laid down in the case of R vs Arnold in 1724. In this case, a person named Edward Arnold attempted to murder Lord Onslow and was charged for the same. During the trial, there was explicit evidence to prove that Edward Arnold was suffering from a mental disorder and it was Justice Tracy who ordained the base for insanity as a defence by asserting that if the perpetrator, by reason of his or her unsoundness of mind, is unable to distinguish between good and evil and does not know what he or she is doing, the defence of insanity can act as an indemnity for the perpetrator.
The trial of James Hadfield in 1800 was the foundation for the second test ( referred to as the insane delusion test ). Hadfield tried to slay King George III and was convicted for treason. Thomas Erskine, counsel for the defendant, maintained and proved that Hadfield was suffering from an insane delusion, a condition that caused him to pretend that he will assassinate the king. Erskine also challenged the previous test and averred that insanity should be determined by the fact of fixed insane delusion with which the accused was suffering and which was the cause of his crime.
The third test, termed as the good and evil test, was laid down in Bowler’s case in 1812. When the accused had committed an offence, the jury was asked to decide whether he was able to distinguish right from wrong or was controlled by an illusion. Thus, the test to identify the capacity of an accused to discern between right and wrong was implanted albeit it was not lucid.
The McNaughton Rules:
The aforementioned tests laid the foundation for the climacteric McNaughton’s case, the case which gave birth to pivotal rules pertaining to the defence of insanity. In R vs McNaughton, a woodturner named Daniel McNaughton shot Edward Drummond, believing him to be a person named Robert Peel. During the trial, the evidence vouchsafed that he was a deluded person and that his state of mind was not stable or coherent. After hearing the testimonies given by seven medical witnesses, it was asserted that McNaughton was completely insane and the jury brought in the verdict of admitting him to a psychiatric hospital. Subsequent to this, a discussion regarding criminal liability in those cases where the accused lacks the capability to understand the nature of his or her act ensued in the House of Lords and fourteen judges were requested to give their opinion on the same, following which, five propositions – called the McNaughton rules – were drawn from the answers given by the judges. The aforementioned propositions are as follows:
- Every individual is surmised to be sane until the contrary is proven.
- If an individual, at the time of commission of the crime, knows that his or her act is against the law, he or she will be liable for punishment, regardless of the fact that he or she suffers from an insane delusion.
- In order to invoke the defence of insanity, it must be patently proven that, at the time of commission of the crime, the accused, due to the effect of his or her insanity, was unable to understand the nature and consequences of the act committed by him or her.
- If the accused is suffering from partial delusion, he or she will be under the same degree of responsibility he or she would have been if the facts or situation, brought about by the delusion, were real. For example, if the accused, due to the effect of a delusion, envisages that a person is about to murder him and, in self-defense, kills that person, he or she will be exempted from a punishment. But if the accused, under delusion, envisages that a person has attacked his reputation and kills that person as revenge, he or she will be punishable.
- A medical witness, who has not seen the accused before the trial, cannot be asked to give an opinion on the insanity of the accused. Only the jury can decide if the accused is insane or not.
A precis of defence of insanity in Indian law:
Radically based on the McNaughton rules, it is section 84 of the IPC which deals with the defence of insanity in India. Section 84 asseverates that “ Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to the law” i.e., if an individual, suffering from an unsound mind, commits an offence – the nature of which he or she incapable of understanding – without being aware that it is against the law, the same will not be considered as an offence. It is pertinent to note that rather than ‘insanity’, the term ‘unsoundness of mind’ is used in Indian law. In order to invoke defence of insanity under this section, it must be palpably proved that –
- The accused was suffering from unsoundness of mind;
- The accused was of unsound mind during the commission of the offense and not before or after the offense was committed and
- By reason of his or her unsound mind, the accused was not capable of knowing or understanding that his or her act was wrong or contrary to the law.
Regarding the first fundamental element i.e., the accused suffering from unsoundness of mind, it should be noted that unsoundness of mind refers to only those conditions that affect an individual’s cognitive/reasoning capacity and therefore every individual who is mentally ill is not exempted from his or her responsibilities. Section 84 fabricates a lucid distinction between legal insanity and medical insanity. Medical insanity usually refers to a disease that wrecks a person’s mental capacity and causes a few functions of the brain to either not function at all or function abnormally. It also deals with a person’s previous and present behaviour. Legal insanity, as depicted in section 84, refers to a condition or situation in which an individual, due to an unsound mind, is not capable of knowing the nature of the illicit act he or she committed and also does not understand that the act committed was wrong or contrary to the law.
Under legal insanity, a person must also be suffering from unsoundness of mind during the commission of the act. In Surendra Mishra vs State of Jharkhand, the Supreme Court clearly contended that ‘every person, who is suffering from a mental illness, is not ipso facto exempted from criminal liability’and in order to seek vindication from criminal liability, it is imperative for an accused to prove that he or she was suffering from legal insanity. In Rattan Lal vs State of Madhya Pradesh, the Supreme Court asserted that the time of commission of the offense is the critical point of time for determining the state of mind of an accused.
As mentioned earlier, in order to invoke the defense of insanity, it is climacteric to prove that the accused was of unsound mind during the commission of the offense and not before or after the offence was committed. In Shrikant Anandrao Bhosale vs State of Maharashtra, while adjudicating an offense under section 84, the Supreme Court asserted that ‘it is the totality of the circumstances seen in light of the evidence on record that would prove that the person was suffering from the said condition’i.e., the previous history of the accused with respect to his or her condition and behaviour, the state of mind of the accused during the commission of the crime and events subsequent to the crime throw light on whether the accused was suffering from an unsound mind at the time of the commission of the crime. The court also added that ‘unsoundness of mind before and after the act is a relevant fact.’
The third essential prescribed in section 84 pertains to the incapability of the accused to understand the nature of the act. If the accused, courtesy of an unsound mind, is not capable of knowing or understanding the nature of the illicit act committed by him or her, then he or she will not be held liable for the same. Now, if the accused did know about the nature of the act but was unable to perceive that the act committed was either wrong or against the law, he or she will not be held liable. However, if the accused did not know about the nature of the act committed but knew that the committed act was wrong or against the law, he or she will be held liable. In X vs State of Nct of Delhi, a man was convicted for murdering his wife, but the accused, during the commission of the crime, was suffering from mental diseases and was an immedicable mental patient and on that account, the Delhi High Court acquitted the accused.
Chapter XXV of the Code of Criminal Procedure prescribes the procedure for trial of an insane individual. Courts in India apply a few tests – such as the McNaughton rules, the Durham Rule and the Model Penal Code test for legal insanity – to determine if an individual is criminally insane or not, though the tests can vary for disparate jurisdictions. Psychiatrists are also called conduct mental health evaluations and treatments.
The defence of insanity acts as an indemnity for individuals suffering from mental illnesses as they are devoid of cognitive capacity, intelligence and the capability to understand the nature of the acts they commit. In India, it is section 84 of the IPC which deals with the defence of insanity. Based on the lionized the McNaughton rules, section 84 can only be applied if an accused proves that, during the commission of a crime, his or her cognitive capability was so vitiated that he or she could not understand the nature of the act committed nor could he or she understand that the act committed was wrong or against the law. The defence of insanity is scrutinized to credible importance and serves its purpose with an entrenched legal system.
Isiri Rajaneesh is a second-year law student, pursuing a BA.LLB [Hons]. at PES University, Outer Ring Road Campus in Bengaluru