Insanity Defense – A loophole for criminals
India recognizes the defence of insanity for the commission of a crime under section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. According to section 84, “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.” Thus it deals with the conception of ‘a person with unsound mind’ and insanity defence.
The defence of insanity is one which a defendant can plead in criminal trials in courts. During the trial, the defendant admits the commission of the act, but asserts a lack of capability owing to the mental disorder. The concept is that such person was not in complete control of his mind during the commission of offence and that he need not be punished as he is already been punished by nature. However, this provision could be dangerous as offenders may plead wrongful defence of insanity to escape the crime. It is more of an excuse rather than a justification for the commission of the crime. This theory of insanity defence is even recognized by most of the civilized nations of the world.
Insanity in Ancient India
Even after going through number of articles and websites, no straight reference was found in ancient Indian texts relating to the plea of Insanity defence. Nonetheless, certain traces of the same could be found.
As per Hindu philosophy, consequences of breach of a duty are to be shouldered by the one breaching such duty. The breach could be voluntary or non voluntary, but he is liable for his wrong. Hence whether the wrong is committed by sane or insane, he is punished. However, to rectify his misdeeds, there was a concept of prayaschita whereby the wrongdoer undergoes penance. Where a child commits a wrong who could not understand the nature of his act and is too young for prayaschita, his parents were cast upon this duty.
Even in the Mahabharata, Vikarna defended Draupadi when she was pledged by Yudhishthira as such pledge was made under influence of gambling . Thus, it may be said that such conditions leading to irregularity of mind were considerable grounds for changing attitudes towards a wrongful human act. The ancient sages have always taken into account the situations and conditions wherein a sin is committed and always accounted for inner development of sinner while granting danda (punishment).
The M’Naghten Rule
The M’Naghten rule was adopted to determine whether a person accused of a crime was sane at the time of commission of the offence, and therefore criminally responsible for the act. This is the latest and most widely used test in insanity cases.
Under M’Naghten rule, the accused is not guilty by reason of insanity if, at the time of the act committed, he was incapacitated to understand the nature of his actions or even if he knew the nature of his actions, he was so incapacitated that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.
The case of Queen v. Daniel M’Naghten
Daniel M’Naghten , a wood worker from Scotland, in 1843 tried killing the then England’s Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. M’Naghten was of the opinion that sir Robert wanted to kill him. Hence M’Naghten tried to shoot him but instead, due to mistaken identity, shot and killed Peel’s secretary, Edward Drummond. Medical experts discovered that M’Naghten was psychotic and hence was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Public was disgusted by the decision and the House of Lords ordered the Lord’s of Justice of the Queen’s bench to lay down a strict definition of criminal insanity. The Lord’s of Justice then made a declaration that insanity can be used as defence in criminal cases only if, “at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from a disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”
Illustration to M’naughten rule
A man murdered his son and wife at his home and was normally waiting for police to arrive at the crime spot. After conducting tests, two medical experts found that the man was incapacitated to understand his criminal act as he was psychologically ill. He was thus declared not guilty and was sentenced to ten year mental health care facility.
Principles of M’Naghten Rule
Fifteen judges were called upon to form a restrictive meaning of criminal insanity. Fourteen out of the fifteen judges made the same points. The majority view, given by Tindal J. came to be known as the M’Naghten rule. Following are the principles cited under the M’Naghten rule:
- It is to be presumed that a convict is sane until the contrary is proven.
- 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.
- 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.
- The delusions to which the accused is suffering should be real.
- The jury in English Law is responsible for deciding if someone is insane or not.
Criticism of the M’Naghten rule
In view of modern psychiatry advancements, and varying concepts of guilt, criticisms of M’Naghten rules have only risen. This test of insanity has been criticized on various terms. Some experts argue that defendants relating with the legal definition of insanity do not always meet the medical criteria for insanity. However, they are sentenced to mandatory medical care anyway. The test also does not distinguish between a defendant posing a threat to the public and a defendant who does not. Perhaps the biggest drawback of this rule is becomes too easy for a defendant to escape liability of a crime irrespective of how huge role the mental disorder has played in the act committed.
Insanity Defence under Indian Law
Cases relating to insanity defence in India are dealt with under section 84 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 84 lays down a fundamental principle of criminal law that an act does not constitute to be a crime unless it is committed with a guilty mind . Although it deals with insanity, it does not use the word insanity but uses ‘a person of unsound mind’. The Indian law relating to insanity is based on the M’Naghten rule. Section 84 grants no punishment to an insane person since they lack the ingredient of mens rea.
On a careful analysis of section 84, it can be divided into – the major criteria covering cases where the accused was suffering from some mental disorder at the time of commission of the act and the minor criteria which can be further sub – divided into cases:
1.That the person was incapable of knowing the nature of the act,
2. That the person was incapable of knowing that his/her act was wrong,
3That the person did not know that what he was doing is contrary to law.
The defendant has to prove insanity. Once proved, the defendant is acquitted from all criminal charges. It is also important to note that section 84 is based on the fundamental principles of:
- Actus nonfacit reum nisi mens sit rea meaning – that nothing is wrong unless done with a guilty mind or intention and
- Furiosi nulla voluntas est meaning – that a person with mental illness has no free will and therefore he/she can do no wrong.
Thus section 84 of IPC acquits a person with mental illness from all liabilities because of absence of mens rea or a guilty intention. However, if anything is wrong, it is not important that it is also contrary to law. Insanity in legal sense differs from insanity in medical sense. The law does not recognize every form of insanity as an excuse to a criminal act.
Misuse of the defence of insanity
There are serious chances that insanity defence could be misused. It is a strong weapon to avoid conviction or reduce the punishment for the offence. Expert lawyers could abuse the defence of section 84 to do away with crimes committed by their clients and thus sane and hardened criminals could misuse this defence which has created a loophole in the criminal defence system.
To understand how easily insanity defence could be pleaded, the case of Ashiruddin Ahmad v. The king could be the best considered. Ahmad, the accused, in his dream, was commanded by someone in the paradise to sacrifice his five year old son. Therefore, next morning, he took his son to the mosque and killed him by thrusting a knife in his throat. After killing his son, he went to his uncle, but since he could see a chaukidar near him, he took his uncle somewhere else and explained him the entire story.
The Calcutta High Court in deciding this case considered the three ingredients of section 84 as discussed above and held that for protection of section 84, one of the three ingredients is mandatory to be established. The Court thus found that one ingredient – the act was not known by him to be wrong was established, since Ahmad considered his dream to be actually a reality which was clearly an indicator of unsoundness of mind. It was held that “the accused was clearly of unsound mind and that acting under delusion of his dream he made this sacrifice believing it to be right.”
What is the matter of concern is, if such reasons are considered to be an excuse for committing offences, it would be easy for criminals to enter the court and plead that he saw a dream in which he was commanded by a supernatural power to commit some criminal act and in belief that it was the reality, committed the act and would thus be granted immunity under section 84. Courts, in such cases, by no means can ascertain the truth of statement of the accused. Thus it is highly probable that insanity defence would be misused. Criticizing the Calcutta High Court decision, Beg. J., in an Allahabad case said “the capacity to know a thing is different from what a person knows.”
Thus where section 84 is included in the IPC for the protection of a person who commits a crime with no guilty intention, it has become more of a shield for regular criminals who commit crime and plead insanity. Once the court is convinced that the accused was suffering from some mental disorder, he will be free from all charges imposed upon him.
Recommendations for filling the loophole of insanity defence
The penal system of India is more than a century old. The Indian law relating to insanity is mostly based on the traditional M’Naghten rules wherein only the impairment of knowledge of the act of accused is considered. The impairment of self restraint of the accused is not relevant in such cases. Even though the accused proves severe mental disorder, he can be convicted if it is observed that he was aware that his act was wrong. The M’naughten rule was devised long time ago and is still very much relevant in Indian law . Although it is not advisable to repeal the rule completely, certain amendments could be made to it to strengthen insanity defence. One such amendment could be by adding an exception to section 300 of Indian Penal Code – in cases that fall short of M’Naghten rule, the act could be termed as ‘culpable homicide not amounting murder.’
The crux of section 84 ‘unsoundness of mind’ is actually a vague concept. It has different meanings in differ in contexts and thus could be much of disadvantage in judiciary. Unsoundness of mind could be interpreted in three ways – lay, medical and legal sense. The lay meaning is the most vague although it is not used in courts. Legal definition is used in courts, however it is obviously very difficult to determine the state of mind of defendant at the time of commission of the act. It has become so confusing to carve out an accurate meaning of this term that it may be better to discard it. A better term that could construe an accurate outcome shall be introduced in courts to avoid unambiguous meanings.
Angad Singh, “Defence of Insanity”(available at www.legalservices.com).
K.M. Sharma, “Defence of Insanity in Indian Criminal Law”, Journal of Indian Law Institute.
 41 Morse SJ,,&” Bonnie RJ., Abolition of the insanity defense violates due process, 488-495 J. Am. Acad. Psychiatry Law (2013).
 One school of thought completely immunes a child below five years of age from punishment for any sin while another school does not absolve such child but provide that they are not liable for complete prayaschita.
 Mahabharata, II, 65, 19-24.
 Manusmriti, VIII, 326.
 Yajnavalkyasmriti, III, 293.
 There are at least ten different spellings
 7 Glanville Williams The Royal Commission and the Defence of Insanity, 16 – 32, Current Legal Problems (1954).
 There are two contrasts between section 84 and rules. Rules refer to the term ‘nature and quality’ while the section only to ‘nature’. Secondly, the term ‘contrary to law’ is observed in section 84 but not in M’Naghten rules.
 Ahmad v. The King A.I.R., 182 Cal. (1949)
 The Editorial of The Times of India, November 30, 1960, said that the Government of India are earnestly thinking of amending the law relating to lunatics “ to bring it in tune with the modern concept of social life,” however nothing is observed to have been done so far in furtherance thereof.
 Indian judiciary has different opinions on unsoundness of mind under section 84 and not under medical science.