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Actus reus (IPC)

Updated: May 12

Actus reus (IPC)
Actus reus (IPC)


Criminal law, a subset of public law, sanctions the imposition of state punishment. In criminal proceedings, the State assumes the role of a party since crimes are not merely transgressions against individuals but affronts to the entire society.

Criminal law operates within precise confines, applicable solely to distinct actions or omissions that can be definitively proven to cause harm.

Crime, in essence, is what the Legislature has explicitly deemed punishable. In essence, crime exists only insofar as it is recognized legislatively.

The maintenance of peace and order stands as a cornerstone in any society, ensuring that individuals can live free from fear, secure in their lives, limbs, and property.

This fundamental assurance is only achievable in states where the penal law holds sway effectively and robustly against those who breach it. Indeed, the measure of a 'State' lies in its efficacy in upholding peace by enforcing law and order.

While a society might function without an elaborate system of constitutional or property laws, the absence of a comprehensive penal system would leave it vulnerable.

In India, the criminal law finds its codification in the Penal Code of 1860 and the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973.

While the Penal Code serves as the substantive law, the Criminal Procedure Code dictates the procedural aspects. It's worth noting that the provisions of the Penal Code do not supersede those of any special or local laws.


Nature and Concept of Crime

The concept of crime is fluid, tied closely to the social policies of the era. Evolving ideologies can redefine what constitutes criminal behaviour. For instance, the legalisation of abortion reflects shifting moral perceptions.

Criminal law often serves as a gauge of societal morality, with legislative changes mirroring evolving values. Recent examples include anti-dowry laws and measures against gender-based violence, signalling societal intolerance towards such injustices.

Crime's perception varies geographically and temporally. Adultery, for instance, may be a criminal offence in one society but a civil matter elsewhere. This demonstrates the influence of social norms on defining criminality.

In today's competitive society, the pursuit of status and wealth sometimes drives individuals to resort to 'white-collar crimes.' This underscores how criminal law reflects socio-economic progress, as economic growth can fuel illicit aspirations beyond available means.


Definition of Crime

Defining 'crime' precisely proves challenging due to its fluid nature, shaped by the dynamic criminal and penal policies of states. Generally, it refers to conduct deemed detrimental to social interests, often involving a violation of law. As W.

Friedman puts it, "The purpose of criminal law is to express a formal social condemnation of forbidden conduct, buttressed by sanctions calculated to prevent it."

Interestingly, the Penal Code of India doesn't provide a direct definition of 'crime.' Instead, it designates offences as punishable acts. A 'crime' can be understood as an action, whether committed or omitted, contrary to law, which prejudices the community and warrants punishment through judicial proceedings initiated by the State.

Two primary definitions of crime exist: legal and sociological. The legal definition, characterised by its specificity and certainty, is more widely accepted.


Legal definitions

Professor Kenny asserts that crimes are wrongs punishable solely by the Crown, yet the Indian Penal Code allows individuals to remit certain offences without court intervention. Nonetheless, state control over criminal prosecutions remains paramount.

Professor Paton notes the state's authority in crime, from controlling procedures to imposing penalties. Goodhart defines crime as any act punishable by the state, prioritising public welfare over private interests.

Blackstone defines crime as an act contravening public law, either by prohibition or command. He later elaborates it as a breach of public rights and duties owed to the entire community.

Stephen echoes this sentiment, viewing crime as a violation of rights with adverse effects on the community at large.

However, criticism arises against these definitions, as they emphasise rights infringement, which doesn't encompass all criminal acts.

For instance, possessing housebreaking tools doesn't violate individual rights but is still a crime. Also, not all crimes harm the community exclusively; civil transactions can also cause community harm.

Russell suggests that crime stems from human behaviour targeted by state penal policy. Halsbury defines crime as an unlawful act against the public, subject to legal punishment.

Tappan narrows crime to intentional acts violating criminal law without justification, overlooking socio-economic crimes and strict liability offences like food adulteration.

The necessity of intent varies across crimes, and defence or justification can negate criminality. Thus, a more precise definition would be simply "an act violating criminal law."

Constituent Elements Of Crime:  Actus Reus And Mens Rea   

There are four essential components to a crime:

  • Human Being: A criminal offence occurs when a forbidden act is voluntarily committed by a human being. The individual must be legally obligated to act in a certain way and capable of being punished. This includes legal persons like companies. If an animal is involved in criminal activity, the owner may be held liable for negligence.

  • Mens Rea ("Guilty Mind"): There must be an evil intent or mens rea on the part of the individual committing the act. This mental aspect is crucial to establishing criminality.

  • Actus Reus ("Prohibited Act"): The individual must commit an act in furtherance of the evil intent. Both intent and action must align to constitute the crime.

  • Injury to Human Being or Society: The individual's conduct, driven by evil intent, must cause injury to another person or society at large. Injury encompasses harm to body, mind, reputation, or property. In certain cases, such as inchoate crimes like abetment or conspiracy, punishment may be warranted even without causing direct injury.

The two fundamental conditions of penal liability—prohibited act (actus reus) and guilty mind (mens rea)—are crucial. The maxim "actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea" (the act alone does not constitute guilt unless accompanied by a guilty mind) underscores this principle.

Lord Kenyon emphasised in Fowler v Padget that both intent and action must concur to establish a crime. It's noteworthy that in strict liability offences, a crime can be committed without a guilty mind accompanying the act.

Conversely, in some offences, evil intent alone, without any overt act, suffices to constitute a crime. Additionally, assembly of individuals without intent may be punishable in preventive crimes aimed at maintaining societal peace.

Actus reus

Actus reus, as defined by Professor Kenny, refers to the result of human conduct that the law aims to prevent. "Actus" denotes a deed, while "reus" signifies something forbidden by law. Actus reus comprises three components: 

(i) voluntary human conduct, whether through acts or omissions; 

(ii) the resulting outcome under specified circumstances; and 

(iii) conduct prohibited by law.

The actus reus is defined by the event itself, not the activity leading to it. While an action may result in harm or destruction, it only becomes criminal when legally proscribed. For instance, executing a criminal as mandated by law incurs no criminal liability, whereas unauthorised execution or lawful execution through unlawful means does.

Actus reus typically encompasses conduct, sometimes its consequences, and relevant circumstances. Circumstances and consequences are pertinent if included in the crime's definition.

Liability in criminal law hinges on the individual's own actions—a willed movement of the body. One is accountable solely for their own deeds, not those of others or events beyond human agency.

Wrongful acts fall into two categories: those causing harm and those deemed wrong due to their deleterious tendencies.

In criminal law, liability extends to attempts and preparations, irrespective of actual harm, as crime infringes upon societal norms.


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