One subject matter that has managed to enthrall criminal law enthusiasts to this day remains the plea of insanity as a defence for evading criminal responsibility. Despite being intriguing in essence, it is so vague, underdeveloped and misused at the same time. The philosophical basis of having to absolve someone from criminal liability simply because they were insane at the time of the commission of crime can be very disastrous to criminal jurisprudence especially when spuriously pleaded by transgressing miscreants. Despite the rarity in its usage, the plea of insanity can turn the tables on the prosecution when successfully proved. It is in this aspect that analyzing the nuances of the plea of insanity becomes important.
BASIS FOR THE PLEA OF INSANITY – THE M’NAGHTEN RULE
The foundation for the plea of insanity can be traced back to the case of R v. M’Naghten, wherein Daniel M’Naghten – the accused, who in his attempt to assassinate Sir Robert Peel, the then Prime Minister of Britain, shot and killed Edward Drummond, the Secretary to the Prime Minister, by mistake. During trial, medical evidence showed that M’Naghten was laboring under a morbid delusion that he was being persecuted by the Tory Party and that the Prime Minister had injured him, due to which he had to take the drastic step of assassinating the Prime Minister. The jury thus held him “not guilty by reason of insanity” thereby causing a wave of pandemonium amongst the British populace. In order to simmer down the public uproar, the judges set down what we now call the M’Naghten Rules. In order to establish this defence, the following must be proved:
- Firstly, that every person is presumed to be sane and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his crimes, until the contrary is established.
- Secondly, that the accused, at the time of committing the act, was labouring under a defect of reason caused by a disease of the mind.
- Thirdly, that the defect of reason was such that the accused was not aware of the nature and quality of the act he was doing or he was not aware that what he was doing was wrong.
After the M’Naghten case, a variety of recognized disorders and mental health conditions came to be included within the ambit of “disease of the mind,” thus adding to the scope of defence of insanity. In the coming years, arteriosclerosis, epilepsy, sleepwalking, hypoglycaemia, etc. came to be considered a “disease of the mind.”
RULE ON INSANITY OVER THE YEARS
- Pre M’Naghten Rule
- Wild Beast Test
The first test to determine insanity was laid down in the case of Rex v. Arnold, wherein the defendant, who in his attempt to wound and take the life of Lord Onslow, was tried for the same. Acquitting the defendant on the basis of previous records of mental derangement, Tracy J. reasoned out that a man cannot be held guilty of any offence whatsoever if he could not distinguish the good from the evil and did not know what he did. This test came to be popularly known as the wild beast test and was further approved in Lord Ferrer’s case.
- Insane Delusion Test
The second test to ascertain insanity was referred to as the insane delusion test and was laid down in Hadfield’s case, wherein Hadfield, who was charged for high treason for attempting to assassinate King George III, was acquitted on the ground of insane delusion. It was successfully pleaded that the accused was suffering from fixed insane delusions which overpowered his intellectual faculties and eventually led him to take the life of the monarch. As such, he was held not guilty by reason of insanity.
- Bowler Test
The third test to check insanity was laid down in Bowler’s case. This test is based on whether or not a person is capable of distinguishing right from the wrong. If a person were unable to distinguish right from the wrong and were insensible at the time of committal of the act, he would be relieved from criminal liability. Ever since this was decided, the Bowler’s test became the barometer to deciding the plea of insanity. It was only after the M’Naghten case that court relied on the M’Naghten rules and adjudged insanity cases on factors of defect of reason and unawareness as to the committal of act being wrong.
- Post M’Naghten Rule
- Irresistible Impulse Test
Owing to the misuse of the M’Naghten Rule, the irresistible impulse test was introduced as a supplement to the M’Naghten Rule, by taking into account the psychiatric phenomena behind criminal behavior. According to the irresistible impulse test, it is believed that there may be times where a person, although being aware of the fact that what he was doing was wrong, could not keep himself from acting on his irresistible impulse. Various psychiatrists have opined that a person, although equipped with good judgment, could succumb to life’s overpowering desires thereby losing control of his actions. Consequently, if a person were to give in to such desires and consequently act out on such irresistible impulse and commit an unlawful act, he would be held to be insane and would not be liable. However, it is to be noted that this defence would hold good only when there is evidence of previous record of unsoundness of mind.
This test however drew a wide range of criticism on the ground that it was too narrow a concept and that there was difficulty in differentiating between resistible and irresistible urges.
- The Durham Test
In order to prevent delinquents from exploiting the defence of insanity, the court in the case of Durham v. United States, modified the rules set out in the M’Naghten case and evolved a new rule which came to be called the Durham Rule. As per this rule, it is not enough for the accused to have a mental disease or defect in order to be absolved of his criminal responsibility. There must be a nexus between the disease and the criminal act, such that the act would not have been committed had the person not been suffering from the disease. As such, if a person were to commit an unlawful act and such act was the product of a mental disease or defect he was suffering from, he would not be held criminally responsible for the act.
- Model Penal Code Test
This test of ascertaining insanity was formulated by the American Law Institute in 1972. It owes its origin to the case of United States v. Brawner. As per this test, a person would not be responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of a mental disease or defect, he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law. The Model Penal Test is much broader in scope in the sense that it assimilates the cognitive element of the M’Naghten test and the volitional element of the Irresistible Impulse test. By substituting the word “appreciate” in place of “know” as was used in M’Naghten test, it brings in an element of flexibility and also avoids the ambiguity of resistible and irresistible impulses as was used in the Irresistible Impulse test.
LAW OF INSANITY IN INDIA
Insanity is one of the general exceptions to criminal liability and is laid down u/s 84 of the Indian Penal Code. The section reads as follows:
“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.”
The section embodies the principles laid down in the M’Naghten case and justifies providing unsoundness of mind as a defence to criminal liability for the reason that an insane person is incapable of forming any sort of criminal intent whatsoever. It is to be noted that the Code uses the expression ‘unsoundness of mind’ instead of ‘insanity.’ However, both expressions are etymologically referred to mean a ‘defect arising from a disease of the mind.’ Further, courts in India have equated “unsoundness of mind” to mean “insanity.”
ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS OF SECTION 84
In order to claim the benefit of section 84 of the IPC, the following elements are required to be proven:
Firstly, that the accused person committed the act on account of unsoundness of mind.
Secondly, that he was incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that the act was contrary to law, or that the act was wrong.
- Unsoundness of mind
Although the term ‘unsoundness of mind’ has not been defined under the Code, it is, as pointed out earlier, equated to mean ‘insanity’ despite the latter term carrying varying degrees of mental disorder. It is pertinent to note that mere unsoundness of mind is not enough to seek protection under this section.
Mere fact that the accused was conceited, odd, irascible and his brain was not quite alright, or he was moody, irritable and conceited, that the physical and mental ailments from which he suffered had rendered his intellect weak and affected his emotions and will, or indulged in certain unusual acts in the past such as snatching away huqqas, hurling brickbats and giving beating, or had recurring fits of insanity at short intervals, or that he was subject to epileptic fits but nothing abnormal in his behaviour, or that he appeared to be a little weak-minded, or of weak inhibitions, etc are not sufficient to attract the provisions of section 84.
- Impairment of mental faculties
Insanity, for the purpose of section 84, should be of such a nature that it completely impairs the cognitive faculty of the mind, to such an extent that he is incapable of knowing the nature of his act or what he is doing is wrong or contrary to law. Merely suffering from some kind of obsession or hallucination, every minor mental aberration, crime attended with a mere agitation of mind, or an uncommon ferocity, or an over-sensitiveness of mind or character, act committed because of extreme anger, etc does not necessarily lead to an inference that it had affected the mental capacity of a person.
- Incapability at the time of commission of offence
Further, the time at which such incapability was rendered becomes crucial in determining the plea of insanity. In order to absolve himself from criminal liability, incapability should have occurred at the time of commission of offence and not prior or subsequent to such commission of offence. For instance, deliberate and pre-meditated acts, careful planning and exhibiting cool calculation in execution of crime, carrying out crime at a time when the accused has not lost his sense of understanding, mere fact that the accused had undergone medical treatment prior to the commission of offence, etc do not indicate that the cognitive faculties of the accused were impaired at the time of commission of the crime and thus, the benefit of section 84 cannot be claimed.
MEDICAL INSANITY & LEGAL INSANITY
Further, it is pertinent to draw a distinction between medical insanity and legal insanity. What is protected under the section is the latter; not all forms of medically recognised forms of insanity come under the ambit of protection under section 84. Mere medical evidence of insanity does not suffice in sustaining a defence under this section; inference of insanity is to be drawn from the facts and circumstances of each case. As such, mere fact that a person is mentally diseased does not ipso facto relieve him from his criminal liability since the requirements of legal definition of insanity is considerably different from that of the medical definition.
BURDEN OF PROOF
As already pointed out, it is generally presumed that every person is sane until the contrary is established. Where the accused tries to evade criminal liability by taking shelter under section 84, the burden of proof rests on the accused himself. As such, it is for the accused to prove that he was, at the time of commission of offence, insane and incapable of knowing the nature of the act or that it was wrong or contrary to law.
However, there seems to be a long-standing controversy as to the scope and extent of this burden. While some courts have ruled that burden on the defence could be discharged only after establishing facts and circumstances required for an affirmative finding of insanity, others were not in favour of imposing too heavy a burden on the defendant. This controversy was resolved by the Supreme Court in D. C. Thakker v. State of Gujarat, where the Court after quoting various authorities and reviewing previous observations, observed:
“where the evidence produced by the defendant or the prosecution raise a reasonable doubt in the mind of the court as regards one or more ingredients of the offence, then in such case the court would be entitled to acquit the accused on the ground that the general burden of proof resting on the prosecution was not discharged.”
In other words, if the accused wants to discharge himself from the burden of having to prove insanity, creating even a small token of reasonable doubt in the mind of the court as to the soundness of mind of the defendant at the time of the commission of the offence, would help turn the tables in his favour. This, however, is left to the subjective determination of the courts and differs from case to case depending on their respective facts and circumstances.
SECTION 84 VIS-À-VIS M’NAGHTEN RULE
A comparative analysis between the law of insanity as provided by section 84 of IPC and the principles laid down in the M’Naghten case show that the former is heavily influenced by the latter and that they carry the same essence in substance. Section 84 encompasses a rudimentary principle of criminal jurisprudence that an act cannot constitute a crime unless when accompanied by criminal intent. As such, “the act must concur with the intent in order to constitute a crime.” Since the mental faculties of insane persons prevent them from thinking rationally and forming the requisite criminal intent, the section affixes no criminal liability on such persons. Various courts in India have regarded M’Naghten Rules to be the fundamental guide for cases involving the plea of insanity.
CRITICISM OF M’NAGHTEN RULE
Although the M’Naghten Rule was momentous in evolving the rules on insanity, it is not without criticisms. The Rule has mostly been attacked on the following grounds:
- The rule is rather too obsolete in the sense that it ignores the universally accepted principle that insanity not only affects the cognitive faculties of the human mind but also the entire personality of the person.
- It fails to recognise that the human mind and personality are integrated as to the cognitive capabilities; they cannot be compartmentalised.
- It narrows the inquiry into mental disorder by its focus upon knowledge of the act committed, and thus severely restricts psychiatrists in their efforts to assist the court.
- It is vague, uncertain and too narrow a test of irresponsibility.
- It ignores disorders that manifest themselves largely in disturbances of impulsive and affective aspects of mental life.
PROPOSALS FOR REFORM
Despite passing of over a century or so, laws on insanity in India have remained static and has not seen any reforms. M’Naghten Rules have now become obsolete and the dynamic pace with which society is progressing demands change and further inquiry into the concept of insanity. Various common law countries have come up with various legislations to meet the deficits posed by the rules set out in the M’Naghten case, and there is no reason as to why India should not do the same.
From a psychiatric point of view, the role of a psychiatrist in assessing mental insanity becomes crucial. A standard evaluation procedure may be formulated for accused persons taking up the plea of insanity. Timely assessment of the accused person can help psychiatrists evaluate the mental state of the accused at the time of commission of offence. Close attention may be paid to the behaviour of the accused during such assessment. If not a new rule, courts can atleast keep the concept of right and wrong intact and come up with slight modifications of the rule and add more to its scope by covering volitional as wells as emotional impairment. The rule may be allowed to be followed by adding in variations to fit the changing needs of the country.
It goes without saying that the M’Naghten Rule bears an epoch-making in the evolution of laws of insanity. The problem of insanity comes into picture owing to the development of nuances of psychoanalysis of the mind of an insane person. Indian law on insanity as incorporated in section 84 of IPC, relies heavily on the principles set out in the M’Naghten case viz, there being impairment in the cognitive abilities of a person. The defence of insanity basically rests on the theory that persons suffering from deficit or disease of the mind cannot be held accountable for the crimes they commit. That being said, there seems to be a lot of aspects that need serious reconsideration in determining cases involving plea of insanity. The law is far too vague thereby suggesting that we do away with the worn-out principles that seem to be over a century old.
Name: Sheeja Baglary
Year of study: IV B.A.LL.B.
College: K.L.E. Society’s Law College, Bangalore