BY:-Mantasha Fatema Bukhari


A defense asserted by an accused in a criminal prosecution to avoid liability for the commission crime because, at the time of the crime, the person did not appreciate the nature or quality or wrongfulness of the acts.

The insanity defense is used by criminal defendants. The most common variation is cognitive insanity. Under the test for cognitive insanity, a defendant must have been so impaired by a mental disease or defect at the time of the act that he or she did not know the nature or quality of the act, or, if the defendant did know the nature or quality of the act, he or she did not know that the act was wrong. The vast majority of states allow criminal defendants to invoke the cognitive insanity defence.

The insanity defence is used in criminal prosecutions to prove that the criminal had a severe mental disorder at the crime time. So he/she might not be in a state of understanding what they were doing in their conscious mind. Even though they implemented it for better judgment, most people use the insanity defence to evade legal punishments and become a loophole, which causes more criminals to commit crimes. Such a situation brings a severe issue in which people will be more involved in such crimes without fear of the law.

Concept of Insanity

There is a well-established principle, “Actus Non-Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea,” which, in the literal sense means, an act does not make an offender liable without a guilty mind. The Intention or guilty mind (Mens Rea) of the offender is an integral part while committing a crime. The defence of insanity is a law that protects a person who is incapable of understanding the nature of the act done by him. 

The unsoundness of mind should be of such an extent that it makes the offender completely incompetent in knowing the nature of the act. The factor that the person is suffering from a mental illness is by itself not sufficient to prove that he is insane. Under Indian law, the rationale of insanity as a defence is incorporated in Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and is based upon the “M’Naghten Rule.” The burden of proof is always on the defendant, and it has to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Law Commission of India in its 42nd report made an effort to reanalyse Section 84, but no modifications were made.

History of Insanity Defence

Though the insanity defence has taken a legal position in the last three centuries it has been in existence for decades. There were various tests used to declare a person legally insane such as the Wild Beast test, The Insane Delusion test, and the test of capacity to distinguish between just and unjust. 

These three tests laid the foundation for the landmark Mc Naughten rule. These five propositions were construed as the McNaughton’s rules.

The propositions were as follows:

1.That it is to be presumed that a convict is sane until the contrary is proven.

2.That an insane person would be liable for punishment if he/she knows at the time of the commission of crime what he/she is doing.

3.That to establish a defence on insanity, the accused by way of his/her insanity should not be in a position to know the nature and consequences of his/her act.

4.That the delusions to which the accused is suffering should be real.

5.The jury in English Law is responsible for deciding if someone is insane or not.

This Mc Naughten rule became a remarkable precedent for the law concerning the defence of insanity. Even in India, section 84 of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) is solely based on the McNaughten rules.

Section 84 of IPC Act of a person of unsound mind“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 law”.

Defence of Insanity in compliance with Indian Law

In Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, a person of an unsound mind shall act- Nothing is an offence committed by someone who is currently unable to know the nature of the act or does what is wrong or contrary to legislation due to a lack of a sound mind.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the framers of the IPC preferred to use the expression “insanity of mind” instead of the term “insanity.” Insanity’s scope is very limited, while the mind’s insanity covers a large area.

For this defence, the following elements are to be established-

  1. The accused was in a state of unsoundness of mind at the time of the act.
  2. He was unable to know the nature of the act or do what was either wrong or contrary to the law. The term ‘wrong’ is different from the term ‘contrary to the law.’

If anything is ‘wrong’, it is not necessary that it would also be ‘contrary to the law.’ The legal conception of insanity differs significantly from medical conception. Not every form of insanity or madness is recognized as a sufficient excuse by law.

It is also to be noted here that Section 84 IPC, is based upon the fundamental principles of,

(a) Actus nonfacit reum nisi mens sit rea which means that nothing is wrong unless done with a guilty intention and

(b) Furiosi nulla voluntas est which means that a person with mental illness has no free will and therefore he/she can do no wrong. This way Section 84 discharges a person with mental illness from his liabilities because of the absence of mens rea or an intent.

Hari Singh Gond vs. State of Madhya Pradesh, 2008Hon’ble Supreme Court in the following case observed that Section 84 of IPC lays down the legal test of responsibility in cases of alleged unsoundness of mind. The courts have, however, mainly treated this expression as equivalent to insanity. But the term ‘insanity’ itself has no precise definition. It is a term used to describe varying degrees of mental disorder. So, every person, who is mentally diseased, is not ipso facto exempted from criminal responsibility. A distinction is to be made between legal insanity and medical insanity. A court is concerned with legal insanity, and not with medical insanity.

Does India really need Insanity Defence ?

The Government of India had implemented several rules for conducting an Insanity test for the accused. They have to go through two significant criteria; mental illness requirement and loss of reasoning requirement. A verified psychiatrist should provide the mental illness requirement; sometimes, officials will call him to the court. The second one should also show that the accused had no reasoning capability at the crime time.

He must also show that he was:

  • Unable to know the nature of the crime
  • Unable to know his act was wrong
  • Unable to know it was contrary to law

Although these strict laws exist, many try to use this defence as a loophole by faking the certificates or corrupting the judiciary itself. Since this defence’s misuse is increasing, many countries, including Germany, Argentina, and Thailand, have abolished it. India can also look into this and decide whether the insanity defence should exist in the judicial system. Developing India should mitigate the number of crimes. Imposing strict laws is one of the solutions. If people know that they will suffer after conducting a crime, they will think twice before performing any such tasks. But we cannot assure that everyone who does a crime is sane and was in a perfect mind.

Defendants Rights

  • It creates an instant atmosphere of guilt.

The case of the insanity defence has a slight difference as compared to others. In such cases, the accused need to confess that he has committed the crime but had no idea about what he has done. He is incapable to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong. Here, the mental state of the accused is may become a supporting or opposing factor for his defence of insanity.

  • It does not allow the death penalty.

An insane person cannot be given the death penalty, although he confesses his crime, he is incapable to understand the gravity of what he has done. Instead, any lenient punishment could be charged to the accused.

  • It can lead to a no-jail term or possible acquittal.

In some instances, where the mental condition of the accused has been proved to the court, he is neither charged with any penalties nor any acquittal. It all depends upon the mental status he is possessed with.

Sheralli Wali Mohammed v. State of Maharashtra

The offender was charged under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for causing the death of his wife and daughter with a chopper. The Supreme Court rejected the plea of insanity because the mere fact that there was no motive proved, or that he did not attempt to run, was not sufficient enough to prove that he did not have the mens rea for committing the act. 

Uses and Abuses

As already been dealt with in the article, proving Insanity and availing this defence is upon the accused and it is a very big challenge to prove the same. Though Medical insanity could easily be proven, legally it’s a cumbersome task because the party has to provide concrete evidence to prove the insanity. It is extremely difficult to fulfil the essentials of Section 84 IPC to show legal insanity. It is for this reason that in many legitimate cases of insanity the accused is charged and punished. 

Chellathurai vs The State (Madras), 2012:- The High Court of Madras held that the crucial point of time for deciding whether the benefit of section 84 should be given or not, is the material time when the offence takes place. In coming to that conclusion, the relevant circumstances are to be taken into consideration. It would be dangerous to admit the defence of insanity upon arguments derived merely from the character of the crime. It is only the unsoundness of the mind that naturally impairs the cognitive faculties of the mind that can form a ground of exemption from criminal responsibility.

Conclusions and Suggestions

 There is a need for a considerable amount of psycho-legal research to focus on the insanity defence, and the changes of research should be visible in law and policy that is being made to satisfy the public’s concerns about the insanity defence. These concerns, however, appear to be based on a number of misconceptions

As once under the stage of unconsciousness/insanity crimes committed become widely difficult to prove in trial or court for the defence team or other party because it directly indicates crimes committed by the person are insane or were found unconscious. Thus we must examine such cases through the fast availability of teams such as experts in the field of medical science and specialised with lawyers.

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