Constituent Elements of Crime - Criminal Law - The Red Carpet


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Monday, May 31, 2021

Constituent Elements of Crime - Criminal Law


The fundamental principle of criminal liability is that there must be a wrongful act - actus reus, combined with a wrongful intention- mens rea. This principle is embodied in the maxim, actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, meaning 'an act does not make one guilty unless the mind is also legally blameworthy'. A mere criminal intention not followed by a prohibited act cannot constitute a crime. Similarly, mere actus reus ceases to be a crime as it lacks mens rea. No act is per se criminal; it becomes criminal only when the actor does it with guilty mind. No external conduct, howsoever serious in its consequences, is generally punished unless the prohibited consequence is produced by some wrongful intent, fault or mens rea. In juristic concept, act us reus represents the physical aspect of crime and mens rea, its mental aspect, which must be criminal and cooperate with the former.

Actus reus has been defined as 'such result of human conduct as the law seeks to prevent'. Mens rea, which is a technical term generally taken to mean some blameworthy mental condition or 'mind at fault', covers a wide range of mental states and conditions, the existence of which would give a criminal hue to actus reus.

The Penal Code has incorporated in it the maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea in two primary ways: (i) by express inclusion of the requisite mens rea in the definition of an offence, and (ii) through 'General Exceptions,' enumerated in ch IV of the Code, some of which, such as mistake of fact, accident, infancy, and insanity, deny the existence of mens rea.


From the maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea it is clear that there are two constituent elements of crime--actus reus and mens rea. Actus reus connotes an overt act, the physical result of human conduct. It is an event that is distinguished from the conduct which produced the result. For instance, in a murder case, the victim's death is the event which is the actus reus. The death or the act us reus was probably caused by the firing of a gun, which is the conduct which produced the result.

In other words, the crime is constituted by the event and not by the activity which caused the event. The vicious intention to cause the act us reus, i.e., death, is called mens rea. Every crime, which is legally specified and defined, generally involves the combined presence of both, actus reus and mens rea. To illustrate this further, let us take an instance of A firing a gun to kill B. While shooting, A holds the gun, places his finger on the trigger and pulls the trigger, as a consequence of which the bullet leaves the gun. In order to constitute an actus reus, there must be the further consequence of the bullet entering B's body and thereby causing his death.

Act to be Voluntary

Act means a conscious or willed movement. It is a conduct, which results from the operation of the will. According to Austin, any movement of the body, which is not in consequence of the determination of the will, is not a voluntary act . It is only a voluntary act that amounts to an offence. Taking the earlier analogy of A pulling the trigger of a gun, as a result of which a bullet is lodged in B's body causing his death, A is guilty only if the act of pulling the trigger was a voluntary and conscious act. If the gun had been triggered by mistake or accidentally, then it is not an offence and A is not guilty of murder. If a person is compelled by force of circumstances to perform an act forbidden by law, he cannot be said to do it voluntarily, and therefore, he will not be held liable for the consequences of that act. An act on the part of the accused is involuntary where it is beyond his control or beyond the control of his mind. The situation is known as automatism. Common examples of automatism are: reflective movements of an external origin, somnambulism, epilepsy, hypnosis, and hypoglycemia.

In IPC, ss 32 and 33 define the term 'act'. S 32 provides that in every part of the Code (except where a contrary intention appears from the context), words, which refer to 'acts done extend to illegal omissions'. S 33 provides that the word 'act' includes 'a series of acts' and the word 'omission' denotes 'a series of omissions as a single omission'. A combined effect of ss 32 and 33 is that the term 'act' takes into its fold one or more acts or one or more illegal omissions. The IPC makes punishable omissions, provided they are illegal and have caused, intended to cause, or likely to cause, like acts, an actus reus. Death of a newly born child, for example, may be caused by a deliberate refusal to feed the baby. Here, the unlawful homicide--an actus reus--is caused not by any positive act (a deed of commission) but a negative act (an act of omission). It warrants criminal action as 'event' of the human conduct is not different from that caused by shooting. However, an act of omission attracts criminal liability only when a person is placed under duty to act recognised by the criminal law and he, with the requisite blameworthy mind, failed to fulfill it. Such legal duties to act might arise out of relationship or contracts, or might be imposed by statutes.

In Om Prakash v State of Punjab, the Supreme Court was called upon to adjudge the propriety of conviction of the husband for attempting to kill his wife by deliberately failing to give her food. The accused, whose relations with his wife were strained, deliberately and systematically starved his wife and denied her food, for days together. With the help of his relatives, he also prevented her from leaving the house. Owing to continuous undernourishment and starvation, she was reduced to a mere skeleton. One day, however, she managed to escape from the house as her husband forgot to lock her room before leaving the house. She got herself admitted to a hospital. The doctor, who found her seriously ill, informed the police. After prolonged treatment and blood transfusion, she recovered. The police registered a case under s 307, IPC. The ses- sions court convicted him for the offence contrary to s 307 of the IPC. The Punjab High Court, confirming the conviction, observed:

“The food...was willfully and intentionally withheld to shorten the remaining span of her life. Law does not require an in- tention to cause death then and there. It is enough if the facts show that by withholding food to her, death would have resulted surely though gradually.”

The Supreme Court, appreciating the high court's reasoning, confirmed the conviction of Om Prakash on the ground of his illegal omission. S 36, IPC stipulates that where an act or an omission constitutes an offence, the committing of the offence partly by an act and partly by an omission, would also constitute the same offence. Illustration to s 36 throws some light on the provision. A intentionally causes Z's death, partly by illegally omitting to give Z food, and partly by beating Z. A has committed murder.

The term 'voluntarily' is defined in s 39, IPC. It runs as under:

Section 39. "Voluntarily".--A person is said to cause an effect "voluntarily" when he causes it by means whereby he intended to cause it, or by means which, at the time of employing those means, he knew or had reason to believe to be likely to cause it.


A sets fire, by night, to an inhabited house in a large town, for the purpose of facilitating a robbery and thus causes the death of a person. Here, A may not have intended to cause death; and may even be sorry that death has been caused by his act; yet, if he knew that he was likely to cause death, he has caused death voluntarily.

The term 'voluntarily' as defined in this section shows that a person need not intend to cause the actual effect caused, in order to be held to have voluntarily caused such an effect. If the effect is the probable consequence of the act done by him, then he is said to have caused it voluntarily. It, thus, makes no distinction between cases in which a person causes an effect designedly and cases in which he causes it knowingly or having reason to believe that he is likely to cause it. Further, if a particular effect could have been avoided by due exercise of reasonable care and caution, then the effect of such negligent act is also said to have been 'voluntarily' caused. The question whether the effect of a particular act was caused voluntarily, is a question of fact, to be determined on the basis of the facts and circumstances of each case. Some of the factors that may be taken into consideration are: the nature of injury caused; the weapon used; force used; the part of the victim's body affected etc.


Act to be Prohibited by Law

In order to create criminal liability, it is not sufficient that there is mens rea and an act ; the actus must be reus. However harmful or painful an event may be it is not act us reus unless criminal law forbids it. In other words, the act must be one that is prohibited or commanded by law. For example, if A had shot at B, but it missed him and instead killed a rabbit, it does not constitute murder. Thus, though there was mens rea i.e., the intention to kill B and there was also the 'act' of shooting, the resultant actus reus for murder which is the death of B, is not present. Similarly, a duly appointed executioner, who hanged a condemned prisoner till death with the intention of killing him, will not be criminally liable for the 'intentional death' of the prisoner.

Act Should Result in Harm

However, it is not all crimes which require that the act should result in some harm. In homicide, the required result is a pre-requisite in order to constitute an offence. Offences like treason, forgery, perjury and inchoate or incomplete crimes are per se offences, irrespective of whether they actually result in any harm or not. Thus, the causing of actual harm may or may not be a part of the actus reus. For instance, in the example mentioned above, where A missed his shot and killed a rabbit instead of B, the act will amount to an offence under s 307 IPC, of attempt to commit murder.

Act to be Direct Cause of Harm

Where the causing of harm is a requisite of an offence, then such harm should have a causal effect to the act . In other words, the harm caused must be a direct result of the act. It must be causa causans--the immediate cause, and it is not enough that it may be causa sine qua non--the proximate cause.

Other Requirements of Law

Sometimes, for an act in order to constitute an offence, some additional circumstances may be required by law. For instance, for the offence of perjury, the accused must have been sworn as a witness; for the offence of bigamy, the person must have contracted an earlier marriage; for treason, the offender must be a citizen of India or owe allegiance to the Indian state; for receipt of stolen property the goods must have been already stolen. The circumstances required may be inferred even by a negative fact, such as absence of consent in rape and in theft.


The term actus reus has been given a much wider meaning by Glanville Williams in his Criminal Law. He says:

“When we use the technical term actus reus we include all the external circumstances and consequences specified in the rule of law as constituting the forbidden situation. Reus must be taken as indicating the situation specified in the actus reus as on that, given any necessary mental element, is forbidden by law. In other words, actus reus means the whole definition of the crime with the exception of the mental element and it even includes a mental element in so far as that is contained in the definition of an act . This meaning of actus reus follows inevitably from the proposition that all the constituents of a crime are either actus reus or mens rea.”

Actus reus includes negative as well as positive elements. For example, as stated earlier, the actus reus of murder is the causing of death of a person. It also includes circumstances, such as the person whose death has been caused, was not as a consequence of a sentence of death given to him or that the death was caused within the territorial jurisdiction of the state.

The requirements of act us reus varies depending on the definition of the crime. Actus reus may be with reference to place, fact, time, person, consent, the state of mind of the victim, possession or even mere preparation.


In the offence of criminal trespass, house-breaking or in the aggravated forms thereof, the act us reus is in respect of place (ss 441-462, IPC).


In the offences of lurking house-trespass or house-breaking by night in order to commit an offence or after preparation for hurt, assault or wrongful restraint etc (ss 456-458, IPC), the actus reus is in respect of both place and time.


In offences of kidnapping and abduction, procuring of a minor girl etc., the act us reus is in respect of the person (ss 359-374, IPC).


In the offence of rape, consent is the actus reus.

State of Mind of the Victim

In offences relating to religion (ss 295-298, IPC), or where rape is committed when consent has been ob- tained by putting the victim in fear of death or of hurt (s 375, thirdly, IPC), the actus reus is with reference to the state of mind of the victim.


Possession of stolen property constitutes the act us reus in certain offences (ss 410-412, IPC).


Section 399 , IPC, makes preparation to commit dacoity an offence; therefore, preparation itself constitutes the actus reus.


An event is very often the result of a number of factors. A factor is said to have caused a particular event, if, without that factor, the event would not have happened. Thus, a man is said to have caused the act us reus of a crime, if, that actus would not have occurred without his participation in what was done. Some causal relationship has to be established between his conduct and the prohibited result. A man is usually held criminally liable only for the consequences of his conduct as he foresaw, (or in crimes of negligence, he ought to have foreseen).

As stated earlier, the act must be the causa causans, i.e., the immediate cause of the effect. When the facts are direct and simple, then establishing the causal nexus between the act and the effect may not be difficult, as for instance, in a case of a person shooting another person and thereby killing him.

The causation can also be without any direct physical act. If the victim asks his way on a dark night and the accused with the intention of causing his death, directs him to a path that he knows will bring him to a cliff edge, and the victim suffers a fatal fall, this is clearly murder, though the accused had done nothing more than utter words. This can be true in cases of abetment, incitement and conspiracy. In the instances stated above, it is not difficult to establish the direct result between the cause and the effect. The difficulty arises only in cases of multiple causation, where it is difficult to establish the imputability.

The following example given by Harris in his Criminal Law will make the principle clear.

A, intending to kill B, shoots at B but only wounds him very slightly. A clearly has the requisite mens rea for murder, that is, he foresees and desires B's death. Now let us assume that on his being taken to the hospital in an ambulance, a piece of masonry from a building falls on the ambulance and kills B; or, alternatively, that B has a rare blood disease which prevents his blood from coagulation so that the slight wound leads to his death, which it would not have done if he had not been suffering from this disease; or, alternatively, that B refuses to have the wound treated and dies of blood poisoning, which would not have occurred if B had the wound treated. In all these cases, a problem of causation arises, i.e. did A cause B's death for the purposes of the criminal law so that he can be convicted of murder? If the result is too remote and accidental in its occurrence, then there is no criminal liability.

Causation and Negligence

The difficulty of causation arises very often in cases of negligence. It has to be established that first, the conduct of the person was negligent and secondly, that but for the negligent act of the accused, the accident would not have occurred. In other words, the act us reus should be causally connected to the act, which should be proved to be negligent.

In order to impose criminal liability under s 304A, IPC, it is essential to establish that death is the direct result of the rash or (and) negligent act of the accused.19 It must be causa causans---the immediate cause and not enough that it may be causa sine qua non, i.e. proximate cause. There can be no conviction when rashness or negligence of third party intervenes. In Suleman Rahiman Mulani v State of Maharashtra and Ambalal D Bhatt v State of Gujarat, the Supreme Court has approved this rule.

In Suleman Rahiman Mulani the accused who was driving a jeep struck the deceased, as a result of which he sustained serious injuries. The accused put the injured person in the jeep for medical treatment, but he died. Thereafter, the accused cremated the body. The accused was charged under ss 304A and 201 of the IPC. As per s 304A, there must be a direct nexus between the death of a person and rash and negligent act of the accused that caused the death of the deceased. It was the case of the prosecution that the accused had possessed only a learner's licence and hence was guilty of causing the death of the deceased.

The court held that there was no presumption in law that a person who possesses only a learner's licence or possesses no licence at all, does not know driving. A person could for various reasons, including sheer indifference, might not have taken a regular licence. There was evidence to show that the accused had driven the jeep to various places on the previous day of the occurrence. So before the accused is convicted under s 304A, there must be proof that the accused drove in a rash and negligent manner and the death was a direct consequence of such rash and negligent driving. In the instant case, there was absolutely no evidence that the accused had driven in a rash and negligent manner. In the absence of such evidence, no offence under s 304A was made out. The accused was acquitted of the charges.

In Ambalal D Bhatt the accused was a chemist in charge of the injection department of Sanitax Chemical Industries Limited, Baroda. The company prepared glucose in normal saline, a solution containing dextrose, distilled water and sodium chloride. The sodium chloride sometimes contains quantities of lead nitrate, with a permissible limit (for lead nitrate) of five parts in one million. The saline solution which was supplied by this company was found to have lead nitrate, very much over the permissible limits and hence was dangerous to human life. The bottles which were sold by the company were purchased by different hospitals, nursing homes, etc., and were administered to several patients of whom twelve patients died.

As per the Drugs Act 1940 and the rules made thereunder, a chemist of a chemical company has to give a batch number to every lot of bottles containing preparation of glucose in normal saline. The accused who was responsible for giving the batch numbers failed to do so. He gave a single batch number to four lots of saline. It was the contention of the prosecution that had the appellant given separate batch numbers to each lot as required under the rules, the chief analyst would have separately analysed each lot and the lot which contained heavy deposits of lead nitrate would have been rejected. As the accused had been negligent in confirming the rules, the deaths were the direct consequence of his negligence.

The Supreme Court held that for an offence under s 304A, the mere fact that an accused contravened certain rules or regulations in the doing of an act which caused death of another, does not establish that the death was the result of a rash or negligent act or that any such act was a proximate and efficient cause of death. It was established in evidence that it was the general practice prevalent in the company of giving one batch number to different lots manufactured in one day. This practice was in the knowledge of the drug inspector and the production superintendent, who did nothing to prohibit the practice and instead turned a blind eye to a serious contravention of the drug rules. To hold the accused responsible for the contravention of the rule, would be to make an attempt to somehow find the scapegoat for the death of twelve persons. Accordingly, the conviction of the accused under s 304A was set aside.

Minimal Causation

When the death of a person is caused after medical treatment, it cannot be said that the treatment was not proper or inadequate, or had better treatment been given, the death would not have taken place. This is be- cause, the intervention of the doctor is in the nature of minimum causation and hence his intervention would have played only a minor part, if any, in causing death.

As far as the IPC is concerned, explanation 2 of s 299 specifically states that if an act causes death, even if death could have been avoided by proper remedies and skilful treatment, the act shall be deemed to have caused death and the person will be criminally liable. If death results from an injury voluntarily caused, the person who causes the injury, therefore, is deemed to have caused the death, although the life of the victim might have been saved if proper medical treatment was given but was not the proper treatment, provided that it was administered in good faith by a competent physician or surgeon.

In Moti Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh, the deceased Gayacharan had received two gunshot wounds in the abdomen which were dangerous to life (ie, which were life threatening). The injury was received on 9 February 1960. There was no evidence when he was discharged from the hospital and whether he had fully recovered or not. He, however, died on 1 March 1960. His body was cremated without any post mortem being done.

The Supreme Court held that the mere fact that the two gunshot injuries were dangerous to life were not sufficient for holding that Gayacharan's death, which took place about three weeks after the incident, was on account of the injuries received by him. The court observed that in order to prove the charge of Gayacha- ran's murder, it was necessary to establish that he had died on account of the injuries received by him. Since, there was no evidence to establish the cause of death, the accused could not be said to have caused the death of Gayacharan. A crucial aspect highlighted by the court in this case was that the connection between the primary cause and the death should not be too remote.

In Rewaram v State of Madhya Pradesh, the accused had caused multiple injuries with a knife to his wife Gyanvatibai. She was admitted into the hospital and an operation was performed on her. Thereafter, she developed hyperpyrexia, ie, high temperature, as a result of which she died. This hyperpyrexia was a result of atmospheric temperature on weak, debilitated individuals, who already had some temperature. The doctor, who performed the post mortem, opined that the death was not as a result of multiple injuries, but because of hyperpyrexia. The Madhya Pradesh High Court placed reliance on explanation 2 to s 299, IPC. 

It observed that if the supervening causes are attributed to the injuries caused, then the person inflicting the injuries is liable for causing death, even if death was not the direct result of the injuries. In the instant case, there was medical evidence to show that the hyperpyrexia or the running of high temperature was a result of her debilitated condition. Gyanvatibai fell into debilitated condition because of multiple injuries which she had sustained, the operation which she had to undergo and the post-operative starvation, which was necessary for her recovery. Thus, her death was a direct consequence of the injuries inflicted on her. Intervening or supervening cause of hyperpyrexia was a direct result of the multiple injuries and was not independent or unconnected with the serious injuries sustained by her. As a result, it was held that the accused 'had caused' her death and therefore his conviction for murder was upheld.


D attacks V intending to stab him to death; V runs away, but is struck by lightning and dies. One would say that D is not guilty of murder, though he is guilty of attempted murder. Why is he not guilty of murder? Is it because it was not he who killed V, but the lightning? But if V had jumped over a cliff or into a river in an ef- fort to escape, or to commit suicide in despair, or had accidentally fallen over the cliff or into the river in his fight, D would have been accountable for the death, and we should not have said that it was not D who killed V, but the water or the hard ground. What is it that makes us feel that lightning is different?

The most obvious answer is that being struck by lightning is an ordinary risk of life. One is not more likely to be struck by lightning when one is running away from an attacker, than when one is taking a walk. The at- tacker has not substantially increased the victim's risk.

Another example of the ordinary hazard principle is where the victim of an attack dies in a traffic accident, when he is being conveyed by an ambulance to the hospital, or dies as a result of a fever which spreads throughout the hospital. Assuming that his death was not contributed to by his weak condition, the attacker is not guilty of it, because the effect of the attack was merely to place the victim in a geographical position, where another agency produced his death. The attack did not substantially increase the risk of the fatal re- sult, because anyone may die in a traffic accident or epidemic. Of course, a reasonable man, mulling over all the possible consequences of an attack, might think of these possibilities; but they would not be possibilities rendered any more likely by the fact of the attack. Even if it could be shown that there was slightly more risk of dying of fever in hospital than elsewhere (perhaps because of the presence in hospital of resistant bacteria), this would probably be accounted to be too insignificant to affect the decision.

Another example is where the victim died of hospital fever, but a contributory factor was the weakness caused by his injuries, so that he would not have died if it had not been for his weakness. Probably, the at- tacker would then be guilty of criminal homicide (murder or manslaughter), for, on these facts, there is a medical (and not merely a fortuitous) connection between the wound and death. It is like the case of a wound turning gangrenous and causing death, where the wounding is clearly the cause of death.


A man is said to intend the natural consequences of his act . The principle of reasonable foresight is just a restatement of that principle. In IPC, the definition of 'voluntarily' itself embodies this principle, for a man is said to have voluntarily caused an effect, if, at the time of doing the act, he knew or had reason to believe that it is likely to be caused. The illustration to s 39, IPC, explains the principle.

This principle is also built into the IPC in the thirdly and fourthly of s 300. As per thirdly, a person who causes such bodily injury as is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death, is guilty of murder. Fourthly of s 300, IPC, states that if a man does an act which is imminently dangerous that in all probability it must cause death (and commits such act without any excuse for incurring the risk), and if death is caused, then he is guilty of murder.

The two basic tenets that have to be established in cases arising under this principle are: first to establish that death, grievous hurt or whatever the offence that is to be established is the natural consequence of the act of the offender; and secondly, it has to be established that any reasonable man would be able to foresee that the death, grievous injury, etc, is likely to be the natural consequence of his act.


Unexpected interventions or twists in the act s, which cause the result, can create complications while fixing causation. However, if otherwise, the culpability is clear, the mere fact that there were unexpected interventions or twists, cannot exonerate the person from criminal liability. But, it may have effect on the degree or gravity of culpability, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case.

D prepares a poisoned apple with the intention of giving it to his wife, V, to be eaten the next day. V finds the poisoned apple in the meantime, eats it and dies. Or D is cleaning his gun with the intention of shooting V the next day. The gun goes off accidentally and kills V.

It would obviously be too harsh to convict D of murder in the second case; his liability is for manslaughter. As to the first case, the answer may depend on the more detailed facts. If D had put the poison by his wife's bedside, intending to administer it to her when she awoke, the jury should be allowed to find that he has launched himself sufficiently far on his ghastly plan to be guilty of an attempt, and therefore (according to Smith's suggestion) to be guilty of murder, if, the wife unexpectedly woke up and drinks the poison herself. If, on the other hand, the poisoned drink is still in the kitchen, the result should probably be different.

In Joginder Singh v State of Punjab, the deceased Rupinder Singh teased the sister of the accused. In retaliation, the two accused went to Rupinder's house and shouted that they had come to take away the sister of Rupinder Singh. In the meantime, the cousins of Rupinder Singh intervened. One of them was given a blow on the neck by the accused. Meanwhile, Rupinder Singh started running towards the field. The accused started chasing him as a result of which Rupinder Singh jumped into a well due to which he sustained head injuries which made him unconscious and thereafter he died due to drowning.

The Supreme Court held that the accused were about 15 to 20 feet from Rupinder Singh, when he jumped into the well. There was no evidence to show that the accused drove Rupinder Singh into the well or that they left him no option but to jump into the well. Under these circumstances, it was held that the accused could not have caused the death of Rupinder Singh and hence, they were entitled to be acquitted of the charge of murder. 'If we were satisfied', their Lordships of the Supreme Court observed, 'that [Joginder Singh and Balwander Singh] the accused drove him to jump into the well without the option of pursuing any other course, the result might have been different'.

This aspect came up for consideration before the Supreme Court in Harjinder Singh v Delhi Administration. In this case, the accused was trying to assault one Dalip Singh and the deceased intervened. The accused finding himself one against two, took out a knife and stabbed the deceased. At that stage, the deceased happened to be in a crouching position presumably to intervene and separate the two. The knife pierced the upper portion of the left thigh. The stab wound was oblique and it cut the femoral artery and vein under the muscle, which are important blood vessels of the body, and the cutting of these vessels would result in great loss of blood and would lead to immediate death or death after a short duration. The Supreme Court held that from the evidence, it was proved that it was not the intention of the appellant to inflict that particular injury on that particular place. In view of this, it was held that thirdly of s 300, IPC, would not apply. The accused was convicted under s 304, IPC.

Intervention of an Innocent Person

A person will be held fully responsible if he had made use of an innocent agent to commit a crime. Examples are where A secretly puts poison into a drink which he knows or expects B will offer to C or where A recklessly leaves a dangerous machinery which may cause harm to person or property, through being moved inadvertently by someone else, or otherwise. An engineer who deserted his post at a colliery, leaving an ignorant boy in charge of the engine, who declared himself incompetent to manage it, was held guilty of manslaughter of a collier who was killed because the boy failed to stop the engine properly.

Intervention of Another Person

In cases, where another person has intervened and the latter's action was the immediate and direct cause of the crime, the original wrongdoer whose act had merely given rise to the occasion of the act of the criminal, will be absolved from liability. But there should be clear evidence to show that the first man's act had no direct bearing on the result. For example, if one person was engaged in murderously beating another to death and a stranger, without being requested, were to rush in and add some more blows so that the victim's death was more speedily brought about, both would be guilty of murder and the first man could not be allowed the defence that it was the second assailant's strokes that finally ended the victim's life.

The case of R v Hilton may be cited as an example, where the defence of intervention was successful. There, the accused was in charge of a steam-engine, but all of a sudden he stopped the engine and went away. During his absence, some unauthorised person set the engine in motion, resulting in the death of the deceased. The court held that the death was the consequence, not of the act of the prisoner, but of the person who set the engine in motion after the prisoner had gone away. Professor Kenny has pointed out that the stronger reason for acquittal would have been that the prisoner had not expected any harm from his breach of duty, as was really the case of a fireman in the London Fire Brigade, who was absent from his post in charge of a fire-escape when the deceased had lost his life in a fire. The accused will be acquitted even in cases where the victim had intervened against himself.

Thus, in R v Horsey, where the accused had set fire to a stack of straw and the deceased was found burnt in another portion of the stack, the accused was set free. Justice B Bramwell told the jury that if they were not satisfied that the deceased was in the enclosure at the time the prisoner set fire to the stack, but came in afterwards, then as his own act intervened between the death and the act of the prisoner, his death could not be the natural result of the prisoner's act.


The doctrine of contributory negligence of the victim has no place in criminal law. It does not play any role in the determination of the guilt of the doer. However, it can be a factor for consideration in determination of sentence. It may be a just mitigating factor. The plea that victim has contributed to the injury caused by his own negligence, therefore, affords no defence against a charge under s 279 or s 304A of the IPC. A driver, therefore, is expected to anticipate reasonably foreseeable negligent act of road users.

Occasionally, the contributory fault of the victim may be so great that the defendant's act is held not to be the imputable cause of the harm. An illustration is the 'exhaustion of danger' principle, where the risk created by the defendant is at the end before the victim commits the careless act. When, for example, a pedestrian suddenly crosses a road without taking note of the approaching vehicle, he takes the risk of being knocked down without the driver being aware of it. The driver, if he knocks him down, cannot be held guilty for his negligence. A pedestrian, alighted from jeep, while crossing highway impatiently at night, collided with a motor cycle and died. The accused was acquitted for causing death by rash and negligent act as the deceased was main contributory to the incident. The court further observed that on the highway, the vehicles have right of way and they legitimately move at the high speed and if a person desires to cross the highway, he has to be careful. If a person does a suicidal act, as the present one, the driver of the vehicle cannot be held responsible for the consequences. Similarly, a tempo driver was acquitted of charges killing a cyclist, who, with a pillion rider, was cycling in center of the road.

(The content of this post is taken from PSA Pillai’s Criminal Law. The reading of this post is just for research and educational purposes and it is not being used for any commercial purpose)


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