Author: Harshika Bhutda, a student at Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.

Insanity is a state of mind in which the person does not know whether his acts are right or wrong.  Therefore, a person suffering from insanity would not be responsible for his criminal acts as per the criminal law. One of the defences listed in the Indian Penal Code’s General Exceptions Chapter IV is insanity. 

As a mental condition that renders a person incapable of using cognitive functions or comprehending the nature and likely repercussions of the act they are committing, insanity falls within the category of general exceptions. In order to qualify for this exemption, one must guarantee that the accused’s insanity is severe enough to render them totally incapable of understanding the nature of the conduct.

 The defence of insanity has been around for many ages. Over the last three centuries, it obtained a legal standing.  The law of insanity used as a defence dates back to the 1700s.  It is based on the maxim, “furiosus solo furore punitur” which means that a mad man is punished by his madness alone. 

The defence, as in the plea of insanity, has gone through various stages and has instituted numerous precedents and tests of insanity.

R v. Arnold (1724) was the first case involving the law of insanity. Edward Arnold was prosecuted for his attempted murder of Lord Onslow, as well as for causing injuries to him. It was evident from the evidence that the accused had a mental illness. Tracy, J. noted: “Even though he committed a crime, he could not have been guilty of any crime against any law at all if he was under God’s visitation and unable to distinguish between good and evil.” As per the verdict in the aforementioned instance, a person might apply for exemption if their mental health condition prevented them from distinguishing between good and bad, and they were also oblivious to the type of behaviour they had engaged in. This assessment is known as the “Wild Beast Test.”

The second test evolved in Hadfield’s case (1800). Hadfield was found guilty of high treason for trying to kill King George III and was dismissed from the service on the grounds of insanity. Lord Thomas Erskine, the accused’s attorney, stood up for him and convinced the judge that Hadfield was not guilty, citing the crazy hallucination the accused was going through as justification for his claimed murder of the King.  According to Erskine, the primary cause of the defendant’s offence was a fixed, crazy delusion, which was the determining factor in determining the defendant’s insanity. This examination was dubbed the “Insane Delusion Test.”

In Bowler’s case (1812), the third test was developed. According to Le Blanc, J., the jury in this instance had to decide when the accused committed the act, if he was capable of telling right from wrong, and whether he was under the influence of a delusion. The ability of the accused to choose between right and wrong has been given more weight by the courts since the Bowler case, but the standard was unclear.

The “right and wrong test” established in M’Naghten v. R (1843) 8 E.R. 718 is considered most prominent. In this instance, the accused believed that he was the target of an assassination squad and that Sir Robert Peel, the English prime minister at the time, was to blame for everything. The defendant was afflicted with paranoid delusions. He mistakenly believed Sir Robert Peel to be Mr. Edward Drummond, the Prime Minister’s secretary, and shot him one day. After his arrest, he was accused of murder. He asserted his insanity defence.  There was evidence presented throughout the trial to support the accused’s insanity. In their depositions, the witnesses also said that the accused was insane. As a result, the court granted the defence and cleared the defendant.

The following are the rules that the House of Lords has established regarding the use of insanity as a defence:

  • Everyone is assumed to be sane, and whomever asserts an insanity defence has the burden of evidence.
  • There need to be a mental illness, which entails mental dysfunction.
  • The accused was suffering from a mental illness at the time of the conduct, which prevented him from understanding the nature or significance of what he was doing.
  • Even though he was aware of the behaviour, he was unaware that it was improper.

Legal insanity is more limited than medical insanity since many illnesses that meet medical standards for insanity do not meet the requirements for legal insanity as defined by the IPC.

“Act of a person of unsound mind” is covered under Section 84 of the IPC. “A person who, at the time of the act, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to law is not guilty of any offense.”

Ingredients of section 84:

  • The accused person had to have been mentally ill when the offense was committed.
  • Due to mental instability, the accused is unable to comprehend the nature of his actions.  
  • The accused does not have power to comprehend the consequences of his actions
  • They should not be able to comprehend that the action is contrary to law

An established principle known as “Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea” states that an offender is not accountable for their actions unless they have a guilty mindset. An essential component of committing a crime is the offender’s intention or guilty mentality (mens rea). A person who lacks the mental capacity to comprehend the nature of the conduct they have committed is protected by the legal defence of insanity. The idea of insanity defence is neither clinical or medical; rather, it is legal. Thus, the mere presence of a mental illness is insufficient to establish insanity. Comparable to a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof for the defendant to prove insanity is a “preponderance of the evidence.”

The defence of insanity can only be claimed when the accused has been suffering from unsoundness of mind during the act or commission of the crime. Any post-dated unsoundness of mind or mental illness that had not happened during the course of the act would not hold any relevance in the plea.

In Rattan Lal v. State of M.P., the court established that the crime’s actual commission is the critical moment at which the accused’s state of mind must be established. Whether the accused was in a state of mind that qualified them for benefits under Section 84, however, depends on the circumstances that preceded, attended, and followed the crime. Stated differently, the behavior before, accompanying, and after the incident may be significant in ascertaining the accused’s mental state at the time of the offense, but not those occurring at a later date.

Jai Lal vs Delhi Administration (AIR 1969 SC 15) in this particular case, a one and a half-year-old toddler was stabbed by the accused. He tried to flee out the back door after hiding the knife. He claimed to be a schizophrenic patient and invoked the defence of insanity.  In this case, the court denied the plea and considered the accused’s following actions in an effort to thwart his arrest. The court decided that his actions showed that he was aware of his culpability. The accused was found guilty by the court.

However, Indian law, only permits exceptions for cases of insanity that affect only cognitive faculties; cases in which insanity affects emotions are not taken into account for exceptions. This is because, in cases where insanity affects our cognitive faculties, the person is not able to control his actions and is unaware of the consequences of those actions. The Indian Law has same conditions for defence for insanity as of that established M’Naghten case.

The prosecution always bears the burden of proving the crime; they must establish the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the burden of proof is with the accused (section 105 of the Evidence act) regarding the components listed in section 84 of the IPC.

In order to establish insanity, the accused must demonstrate that, at the time of the incident, they were not of sound mind. The following guidelines govern the burden of proof in insanity cases:

  • The prosecution must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offence with mens rea.
  • Being insane is a refutable assumption.
  • The accused does not need to establish any part of section 84 IPC beyond a reasonable doubt in order to raise a defence against it. Instead, they may provide oral, circumstantial, or documentary evidence to challenge the assumption of sanity at any moment.
  • Even if the accused cannot prove the elements of section 84 in relation to the conduct he did, he nevertheless casts doubt on the court’s judgement. The Court would therefore have the right to exonerate the defendant on the grounds that the prosecution’s general burden of evidence was not met.

In order to provide the accused with a defence, it is suggested that the term “mental insanity” be defined precisely to avoid the various controversies and confusions that arise when attempting to distinguish between the “mental disease” and the actual insanity of mind that the Code seeks, or the so-called “legal insanity.”

Just as the English criminal law system recognises the defence of automatism under the defence of an ill mind, so too should the scope of Section 84 be broadened to include this defence.

The legality of the insanity defence is still up for debate in the field of criminal law. All concepts have advantages and disadvantages. Highlights of this type of defence include its ability to benefit mad and mentally ill individuals who may commit crimes because they are not of sound mind (i.e., without mens rea). The problem is that violent offenders use the insanity defence’s gaps as a way to avoid being held accountable for their crimes.

There is certainly room for debate, but the logic of the insanity defence ends in the womb of time.

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