The two of the most important elements of a crime that find its mention in every book written on criminal law are actus reus and mens rea. While the term ‘actus rea’ is most commonly understood to mean a guilty act and the term ‘mens rea’ means a guilty mind. The Latin maxim ‘Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea’ is one of the most important tenets of Criminal Law as it helps understand the role of mens rea in commission of a crime or simply a criminal act. Therefore, in order to understand ‘Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea’, it becomes essential to understand the concept of Mens Rea and Actus Reus.
Understanding Mens Rea
Mens Rea was introduced in the seventeenth century along with the Latin maxim ‘Actus Reus Non Facit Reum, Nisi Mens Sit Rea’ In legal parlance, it is usually used with reference to a criminal or a criminal act. Basically, Mens Rea is the mental element of a crime. Therefore, there lies a duty upon the prosecutor, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the guilt of the accused in commission of a specific crime. The concept of mens rea seems to have evolved with time but the essence of mens rea is everlasting.
In the case of Regina v. Falkner[i], the defendant accidentally burned down a cargo ship while stealing rum that was stored in a cask. The defendant was indicted and found guilty for stealing the rum as well as setting the ship on fire. The defendant then appealed. Lord Fitzgerald elucidated on the mens rea requirement and was of the opinion that the defendant should’ve intended to do something criminal which would be expected to lead to the actual harm he was charged for.
It is pertinent to note that every offence constitutes a different requirement pertaining to mens rea. Simply put, every offence does not possess the same mens rea. “One mens rea for all” does not exist. At times, mens rea is confused with motive, but it is not the same. Motive is what prompts the accused to form an intention. It precedes intention and must not be used interchangeably in law. A mere motive cannot be equated with the intention of committing the crime. A person may have a very strong motive to take the life of another, but that alone would not give rise to the crime. Therefore, framing a person of a crime merely because they had a motive to commit the crime may not be right. Hence, in criminal law, it becomes significant to study the small yet important difference between the two.
Understanding Actus Reus
Actus reus refers to the act or omission that comprises of the physical elements of a crime as required by law. In cases where the person had a duty to act and failed to do so, actus reus could be understood to mean omissions as well. “An act” must be either barred or commanded by law for it to constitute a crime. In the case of R v. Dytham[ii], A policeman who was on duty, witnessed a person being kicked to death. Yet he failed to intervene. The officer was convicted of the common law offence of misconduct during a position because he had neglected to act to guard or apprehend the victim. In Davey v. Lee[iii], the court was of the opinion that the actus reus that was necessary to constitute an attempt would be complete if the prisoner does an act which is a step towards the commission of a specific crime, which is immediately and not simply remotely connected with the commission of it, and the doing of which cannot reasonably be regarded as having some purpose other than the commission of that particular crime. Actus reus focuses on the actual act and not the mental state of the wrongdoer. Actus reus is affiliated with the human conduct.
Meaning of Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea
As stated before, Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea is a legal maxim. It means ‘An act does not make anyone guilty unless there is a criminal intent or guilty mind.’ This maxim could be understood better with the help of actus reus and mens rea. If actus reus is not accompanied by a mens rea, it would not constitute a crime per se. Alternatively stated, if a wrongful act committed by a person is not the result of a guilty intention, the said act would not constitute a crime. Section 14 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 reflects the crux of this maxim. In order to prove the accused’s guilt, it must be shown that the illegal act was coupled with the intention of the accused to commit the said act. Hence, it can be said that guilty mind i.e., intention of the accused to commit the crime is preliminary in proving the accused guilty of that particular crime.
If A crashed into C’s car with the intention of killing him and the crash led to C’s death, A would be guilty of murder. On the contrary, if A crashed into C’s car unintentionally, with no intention whatsoever, to impose even the slightest form of harm to C, it may be said that the said act was an accident or would depict negligence on part of A. Similarly, if a person causes grievous hurt to his attacker by exercising his right of private defence, his act would be devoid of mens rea, if his act of private defence would be covered under Section 96-106.
Importance of Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea
As established before, Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea has predominant role in determining the guilt of the accused with respect to the crime. The application of this maxim helps one distinguish between unintentional criminal acts (example: act done in private defence) and intentional criminal acts. This may prove extremely beneficial in determining the quantum of punishment. Understanding and determining the intention of the accused behind committing the crime also helps one determine the severity of the crime. The absence of mens rea may help in reducing the punishment or even negating the liability altogether i.e., acquittal of the alleged accused. The maxim helps in determining the criminal nature of the wrongful act as well.
Case Laws For Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea
In the case of R. Balakrishna Pillai v. State of Kerala,[iv] the Supreme Court laid emphasis on the principle of Criminal Jurisprudence stated in Criminal Law by K. D Gaur and quoted the same. The same excerpt as quoted in the judgement, by laying emphasis on the latin maxim, ‘Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea’, helped in understanding the two components of every crime, i.e., a physical element and a mental element, usually referred to as that actus reus and mens rea respectively.
There are certain cases that highlighted the need for removing the prerequisite of ‘intention to commit the crime’. In the case of Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab,[v] it was said that in a criminal action, the general conditions of penal liabilities are reflected in the maxim “actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea”. The court further focused on the fact that there are certain exceptions to this maxim. The court then stated the reasons for this by implicating that the legislature, under some situations and circumstances, may deem it to be important so that an act can be prevented from being committed and in order to do so it might become essential to eliminate the element of mens rea as a part of a crime or of adequate proof of intention or actual knowledge. Nonetheless, unless it is explicitly or implicitly made clear by a statute to rule out ‘mens rea’, it is necessary to read the element of ‘mens rea’ along with the provisions of the statute.
The Apex Court has tried to depict the importance of Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea with regard to Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter “IPC”). The Court in the case of Siddhapal Kamala Yadav v. State of Maharashtra[vi] opined that Section 84 of the IPC embodies the fundamental maxim of criminal law, i.e., Actus Non Reum Facit Nisi Mens Sit Rea. A similar observation was made in the case of State of Rajasthan v. Shera Ram[vii]. In this case, the Supreme Court was of the view that in order to commit a crime, the intention, as well as the act, are understood to be the constituents of the crime as given in actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea. The court further stated that every normal and sane human is expected to possess some degree of reason to be held accountable for their act and conduct, unless otherwise proved. The court emphasized on the fact that a person of unsound mind or a person suffering from mental disorder is devoid of this basic norm of human behaviour.
In Brend v. Wood,[viii] Lord Goddard, C.J. held that it is extremely important for the protection of the liberty of the subject, that a court of law takes into account that unless and until a statute, either clearly or by necessary implication, eliminates mens rea as a constituent part of a crime, the court must not find a man guilty of an offence against the criminal law unless he possesses a guilty mind.
There are quite a few cases that have disregarded the need to explicitly show mens rea of the accused in commission of the crime. In Commissioner of Sales Tax v. Rama and Sons, General Merchant, Ballia[ix], the Allahabad High Court stated that mens rea was adopted from English Criminal Law when it was not codified. Further, the court while referring to ‘actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea’ said that this principle had lost most part of its significance due to the greater precision of modern statutes. The court while highlighting the improvement in the modern statutes emphasized on the inculcation of words like ‘voluntarily’, ‘intentionally’, ‘negligently’, ‘knowingly’, fraudulently’, ‘dishonestly’, ‘rashly’, ‘omits’, ‘without lawful authority’ etc., in various sections of the IPC which depict the ‘intent’ aspect of the crime. In the opinion of the court the usage of words such words and other words like ‘of the conduct of the person’ help establishing the offence, therefore, leaving almost no scope for the need to further show guilty intention or mens rea of the accused.
The legal maxim, Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea is an integral part of criminal law. It focuses on the fact that an accused may not be guilty unless the act is accompanied by criminal intent. Although, there are certain cases and concepts like strict liability where the ‘intention’ of the wrongdoer is not taken into consideration, this maxim helps us understand the dual role of actus reus and mens rea in conviction of the accused. The maxim by laying emphasis on the blameworthy condition of the mind makes us realize that in most cases, an act alone would not convict the accused, the mental state of the accused also plays a primal role.
[i] Regina v. Falkner, 13 Cox CC 550 (1877)
[ii] R v. Dytham,  Q.B. 722
[iii] Davey v. Lee,  1 QB 366
[iv] R.Balakrishna Pillai v. State Of Kerala, 2003 9 SCC 700
[v] Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, 1994 SCC (3) 569
[vi] Siddhapal Kamala Yadav v. State of Maharashtra, 2009 1 SCC 124
[vii] State of Rajasthan v. Shera Ram, 2012 1 SCC 602
[viii] Brend v. Wood,  175 LT 306
[ix] Commissioner of Sales Tax v. Rama and Sons, General Merchant, Ballia, 1999 UPTC 25
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