Meaning of Crime and General Principles of Criminal Law


Meaning of Crime

What is ‘crime’? This question must be addressed before we move on to Criminal Law. A ‘crime’ may, therefore, be an act of disobedience to such a law forbidding or commanding it. But then disobedience of all laws may not be a crime, for instance, disobedience of civil laws or laws of inheritance or contracts.

Therefore, a ‘crime’ would mean something more than a mere disobedience to a law, “it means an act which is both forbidden by law and revolting to the moral sentiments of the society.”

Thus, robbery or murder would be a ‘crime’, because they are revolting to the moral sentiments of the society, but a disobedience of the revenue laws or the laws of contract would not constitute a crime.

Then again, “the moral sentiments of a society” is a flexible term, because they may change, and they do change from time to time with the growth of the public opinion and the social necessities of the times.

Principles of Criminal Law

CRIME = ACTUS REUS + MENS REA (concurring in time)

From the above equation it is clear that generally ‘crime’ cannot be constituted either of one alone i.e. ‘Actus Reus’ or ‘Mens Rea’.

The standard common law of criminal liability is usually expressed in the Latin phrase, was first cited as a principle by Lord Kenyon C.J. in Fowler v. Pedger thus: “It is a principle of natural justice and of our law that actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, which means “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty”.

Thus, in jurisdictions with due process, there must be an ‘actus reus’ accompanied by some level of ‘mens rea’ to constitute the crime with which the defendant is charged. For ‘crime’ it is both to be present.

Actus Reus

Actus Reus is a Latin term that means guilty act i.e. it may be an act of commission or an act of omission.

This term has been given by Russell that means physical event. The essentials for actus reus are: the act must be voluntary, acts done while sleepwalking, epilepsy etc are not excluded except where such dangerous situations are created using the habit of the person known to the person who acts wrong.

However, in some cases, law awards a punishment although the ‘actus reus’ is not consummated. They are known to us as ‘attempt’, ‘conspiracy’ or even in some cases as ‘preparation’, which we have discussed earlier at length.

Example of Actus Reus

‘m’ pushes ‘y’ in pond shows ‘actus reus’ whereas if ‘m’ and ‘y’ while walking near pond and ‘m’ slips and hit ‘y’ and y falls into pond does not comprise of ‘actus reus’.

Mens rea

Mens rea is Latin term that means guilty mind, which is considered as a Cardinal Doctrine of the Criminal Law. Thus, while making decision it has to be made clear that whether the ‘actus reus’ was intentional or it was a unintentional.

Thus, state of mind has to be determined only then the puzzle will be broken. The concept of ‘mens rea’ developed in England during the latter part of the common-law era (about the year 1600) when judges began to hold that an act alone could not create criminal liability unless it was accompanied by a guilty state of mind.

Example of Mens Rea

Murder requires malicious state of mind whereas larceny requires felonious state of mind.

Questions

Explain the basis of general principle of Criminal Law.

The general principle of Criminal Law is based upon the term ‘Actus Reus’ and ‘Mens Rea’.

State briefly the necessary conditions for a ‘crime’.

The necessary conditions for crime is based upon the following equation:

CRIME = ACTUS REUS + MENS REA (concurring in time)

Explain the meaning of the terms ‘Actus Reus’ and ‘Mens Rea’.

‘Actus Reus + Mens Reas means that an act alone could not create ‘criminal liability’ unless it is accompanied by a guilty state of mind.

Criminal Law is based on the principles of ‘Actus Reus’ and ‘Mens Rea’. There must be an ‘Actus Reus’ accompanied by some level of ‘Mens Rea’ to constitute the ‘crime’ with which the defendant is charged. For ‘crime’, it requires both to be present. These terms mean that the ‘Act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty’.

 

There are various purposes of punishment, like,

Retribution Aims – equal harm to offender in society’s name;

Incapacitation Aims – get them out of society;

Rehabilitation Aims – treat offenders to help them to re-enter society;

 

Deterrence:

(a) General Deterrence Aims – Everyone must see consequences of crime

(b) Specific Deterrence Aims – Criminal must see consequences of crime

 

Public Education Aims – let society know what our shared values are.


Acknowledgement : This article is adapted from Swayam-NIOS course material.

Meaning of Crime and General Principles of Criminal Law Actus reus Mens Rea LawMint For LLB and LLM students