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Criminal Liability and Disability

 

Under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), certain acts are exempt from criminal liability. A crime committed by a person with unsound mind is one such instance. Section 84 of the IPC states that if a person who has committed a crime is incapable of understanding the consequences of their acts and was unaware of the fact that the act was wrong under law, then such a person would not be punished.

The plea of insanity is generally raised in murder cases. When accused of murder, considerable number of people raise this plea to avoid the verdict of life imprisonment or death penalty that ensues if proven guilty.

Before a judgment is passed, various issues surrounding the crime are examined by the Court. Motive, planning, behavior prior to and during the crime, nature of the crime, circumstances which lead to the crime, history of mental illness and so on are some of the factors considered. In certain cases, the apparent absence of a motive assumes great significance – for example as in a case where a child is murdered by a parent.

In fact, the Court goes to the extent of even examining the actions of the accused after the crime has been committed. For instance, acts like running away, hiding the weapon indicates that the accused was conscious of the nature of the crime and hence wanted to hide it.

Circumstantial evidence is also taken into account especially if the accused has a history of mental illness. In addition, the psychiatric evaluation of the accused after the crime is considered to be as important as the history of mental illness.  In certain cases, the Court can refer the person to a mental hospital where a doctor examines the mental status and submits a report. The Magistrate then acts on the basis of this report, taking great care to be very vigilant before passing any order.

Another important point considered is the degree of the mental illness. Needless to say, all forms of mental illness are not recognized by the law as a defense in murder and has its own parameters of definitions. In fact, the Court even makes a distinction between legal insanity and medical insanity and accepts only the parameters of legal insanity while pronouncing judgment.

Legal insanity is much narrower in scope. Within its ambit, it is necessary to prove that the individual did not understand the nature of what was being done and that it was wrong in the eyes of the law. In this matter the Court is very stringent and does not recognize certain acts of eccentricity as indicating unsoundness of mind. It is seen that very few people have succeeded in getting away without punishment using this line of defense.

What happens if a person is found to be of unsound mind?

Here, the procedure followed is entirely different if the accused is not in a position to understand the proceedings of the trial because of his or her mental status. At this point, it is the Magistrate’s duty to postpone the trial till the time the mental condition of the accused improves. On the other hand, if it were found that the accused was still unable to understand the proceedings, then the case would be conducted according to Section 341 of the Criminal Procedure Code. That is, the trial Court is in a position to convict the person, but cannot pass sentence. The trial Court forwards such cases to the High Court.

If the person has been found to be of unsound mind by the Court, then it is standard practice to keep him or her in ‘safe custody’ till it is observed that they are not harmful to themselves and others. In certain cases, the Court can also grant the custody of the accused to a NGO or a family member.

Judgments related to "Criminal Liability and Disability"

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