Two of the most interesting laws to study are Indian Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter referred to as “IPC”) and Indian Contract Act, 1872 (hereinafter referred to as “Contract Law”). Both these laws have two concepts in common and are mentioned, impliedly or expressly, in both the Laws. i.e., the concept of mistake of fact and mistake of law.
Mistake of Fact under IPC
The IPC consists of 23 chapters, and 511 sections. The IPC includes a few general defences that can be pleaded by an accused in a criminal case, but what are general exceptions? Exempting a person who ought to have been punished by stating a certain defence provided in the IPC is known as a general defence. General defences have been extensively covered under Chapter IV of the IPC. Often, General defences are also known as General Exceptions and it is upon the alleged accused to prove the general defence pleaded by them. The general defences highlight the absence of ‘mens rea’ in the crime of the alleged accused, which is latin for ‘guilty mind’.
One of such defences is the defence of ‘mistake of fact’ and has been covered under section 76 and section 79 of the IPC. Although it seems self-explanatory, this defence must be understood thoroughly in order to avoid its vague application and misuse.
Section 76 of the IPC talks about acts that are commissioned by people who are bound, or by mistake of fact believing that they are bound by law to commit them. The aforementioned section states “Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who is, or who by reason of a mistake of fact and not by reason of a mistake of law in good faith believes himself to be, bound by law to do it.” An essential element of this section is that the alleged accused believes himself to be ‘bound by law’ to carry on an act. Here, the act is not a Mistake of Law, but rather a mere Mistake of Fact. It is pertinent for such an act to lack vicious or wrong intent, therefore, must be done in good faith. The alleged accused believes that he is required to act in the said manner. The mistake of fact must be that of a material fact. Furthermore, the defence of mistake of fact cannot be pleaded for acts that are unlawful.
One cannot plead this defence when the law deems such an act to be punishable even with the absence of mens rea. Since ‘bound by law’ also finds a mention in this section it is pertinent to distinguish obedience of illegal orders of a superior from obedience of legal orders of a superior. Therefore, one cannot blindly obey the orders of their superior when the orders are clearly in abrogation of the law of the land. Therefore, Respondeat Superior will not be applicable. Where an officer of court of Justice mistakes a person for an accused in a case and arrests him instead, he has not committed a crime in the eyes of law.
To sum up, we can say that the following are essentials of section 76:
- The person must not only be bound by law to do it but must also think he is bound by law to commit an act.
- The person shall carry out the act in good faith i.e., in absence of mens rea.
- There must be a mistake of fact as to a material fact and not the law as, ignorance of law is no excuse.
Section 79 states that “Nothing is an offence which is done by any person who is justified by law, or who by reason of a mistake of fact and not by reason of a mistake of law in good faith, believes himself to be justified by law, in doing it.” It enumerates on such acts that are commissioned by a person justified, or due mistake of fact believes himself to be justified by law to do it.
Section 76 and Section 79 have one factor in common i.e., the presence of ‘good faith’. An interesting case for section 79 is the case of Chirangi v. State, AIR 1952 Nag 282. In the aforementioned case, the accused slayed his own son on the presumption that he had killed a tiger. He believed himself to be insane as he had mistaken his son for a tiger. On examination by a psychiatrist, it was found that the accused’s fall combined with his existing physical ailments had resulted in a state of mind where, in good faith, he was attacking a tiger and not his son. The division bench was of the view that the accused due to a mistake of fact believed himself to be justified in destroying the victim and had mistaken for a dangerous animal i.e., a tiger. Therefore, his circumstances aided him in successfully pleading section 79.
To sum up, we can say that the following are essentials of section 79:
- The person must believe he is justified by law to commit an act.
- The person shall carry out the act in good faith i.e., in absence of mens rea.
- There must be a mistake of fact as to a material fact and not the law, as ignorance of law is no excuse.
What is the difference between Section 76 and Section 79?
Often, people tend to confuse Section 76 for Section 79 and vice versa. The confusion is quite justified as both the sections are more or less similar except for two really important phrases in the sections. While section 76 talks about an alleged accused who is ‘bound by law’, section 79 mentions that the alleged accused considers himself to be ‘justified by law’ in commissioning the crime. Therefore, it will be right to state that there lies a thin line of difference between the two defences.
Mistake of Law under IPC
A mistake of law is not a defence as per Indian Criminal Law. The IPC fails to recognise the mistake or ignorance of law as a general defence or an excuse in commission of crime. Therefore, the legal maxim that can be associated with this section is “ignorantia facti excusat, ignorantia legis neminem excusat” which means that ignorance of fact can be considered an excuse, but ignorance of law cannot be excused. The reasoning behind this is the belief that one is presumed to know the law of the land, therefore, such a person cannot use it as a defence for committing a crime unless further safeguarded by other defences in the IPC like insanity. Therefore, X cannot stab Y on the pretext that he believed it to not account for a crime. Nonetheless, if X was insane (a defence under IPC) then the circumstances would have been different.
Mistake of Fact under Contract Law
Section 20 of Indian Contract Act, 1872 enumerates mistake of fact. In cases where both parties have mistaken a fact, the said contract would deem to be void. Such a mistake shall be regarding some fact i.e., essential to the contract, must be committed by both the parties. The reason behind framing section 20 is that every contract must fulfil certain essentials, one of them being ‘meeting of the minds’ and if both the parties are confused as to the material facts, there is said to be no consensus ad idem. The most essential element of this section is ‘mutual mistake’ as unilateral mistake would not deem the contract void. Unilateral mistake would only have some effect when it concerns some fundamental fact and the other party is aware of the mistake.
Mistake of Law under Contract Law
Similar to IPC, the Contract Law does not recognise mistake of law. One cannot say he boarded the coach for disabled people unaware of the law that mandates only disabled people to board the coach for the disabled. One is bound to know the law of the land. Nonetheless, one cannot be expected to know the law of a foreign land. Therefore, being unaware of the law of a foreign country could be passed off as a mistake of fact. Unawareness with respect to private rights is also treated as mistake of fact.
After studying the relevant sections under IPC and Contract Law, it can be stated that mistake of law is not recognised in either of the law. Under Contract Law, mistake as to foreign law could still be excused, but one is presumed to know the law that is followed in his country. Furthermore, the defence of mistake of fact cannot be pleaded for acts that are unlawful, as was held in R. v. Prince (1693). In the aforementioned case, the criminal abducted a sixteen year old child on the presumption that she was not sixteen but eighteen. Both the laws have interesting provisions with respect to mistakes of fact and must be studied thoroughly, interpreted and applied wisely in order to avoid its vague application and misuse.
- KD Gaur: Criminal Law-Cases and Materials, 9th ed > KD Gaur: Criminal Law-Cases and Materials, 9th ed > INDIAN PENAL CODE—AN OUTLINE
- Business Environment and Law by ICSI.
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