General Principles of Criminal Liability

General Principles of Criminal Liability

Criminal liability is considered as the strongest formal condemnation inflicted by the society which may result in deprivation of the ordinary liberties of the offender by sentencing him for the act committed by him. Criminal liability can be assessed under range of offences, the scope of criminal liability, conditions of criminal liability. The five most basic and fundamental facets of criminal liability are:

  1. Actus Reus: Guilty Act
  2. Mens Rea: Guilty Mind
  3. Principle of Concurrence: the principle in which it is presumed that a guilty mental state and a guilty act occur simultaneously or together. This principle must be used to prove almost all crimes with the exception of cases with strict liability.
  4. Principle of Causation: the principle that links the guilty person’s conduct and the end result that is the crime. It is based on the legal maxim “Nulla Poena Sine Lege” which means “No crime without Law” which means that a man cannot be punished for something that is not prohibited by law. The simple premise here is that ‘a man can only be punished for the consequences of his own actions.’
  5. Principle of Resulting Harm: This is the principle that states that a person can only be held responsible for the actual results of the crime and not for the presumptions or assumptions laid against him.

These facets are ascertained or drawn from the legal maxim: “Actus non facit reum, nisimens sit reawhich literally translates to “The act itself is not guilty unless done with a guilty intent”

All criminal acts require an external wrong act which was intentionally done by the guilty person with malice in order to cause harm to the other party.

It is to be noted that Mens Rea includes the mental element of a crime which requires the criminal to be aware of what he/she is doing and to also intend to cause harm. Actus Reus refers to the actionable element of a crime. The action must be illegal in nature or should have cause undue harm or destruction to a person or property. The last component to a crime includes that of injury, hurt or damage to the mind, body, reputation or property of a person or society at large.

It must be understood that Mens Rea is not equivalent to Motive. Mens Rea implies a mental state in which a person intentionally choose, of his own volition, to violate the law. Motive refers to the reason behind why a certain prohibited act is performed.

In the case of Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court held that the element of mens rea must be read into the penal provisions of a statute unless the statute expressly bars it. Hence it is absolutely vital to consider the guilty mind of the offender when assessing the crime.


  1. Since intention forms such an important part in determining criminal liability, most countries have declared that insanity of a person is a condition in which he/she may be exempted from being held liable or punished. The most accepted form of insanity is a mental disease or defect which causes a person to have a distorted view of reality and where he/she cannot differentiate between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
  2. The other scenario in which a person may be wholly exempted from his/her criminal liability is when the conscious mind does not control the bodily movements or functions which is called automatism. For example: Sleepwalking. In such rare cases, the person may be acquitted of all criminal charges given that their state of mind is proven beyond reasonable doubt.
  3. Mental disorders such as Schizophrenia or Paranoia do not classify as exemptions as was held by the U.S Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) wherein the sentence of capital punishment was held to be unconstitutional with regards to mentally challenged individuals however, such people could indeed be sentenced to life in prison without a chance of parole. The practice of reducing the quantum or magnitude of the punishment instead of capital punishment in cases of people with mental disorders is seen to be exercised in most common law countries.
  4. In cases of Strict Liability, Mens Rea is not looked into at all. Employers are held liable if employees are injured on the job and it is regardless of how carefully the employers followed safety precautions. When employees are made to work in dangerous environments and deal with hazardous elements the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the employer and this was seen in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher wherein the defendant was held liable for the damage caused by the engineers he had hired to build a reservoir nearby. Even in the case of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, wherein Absolute Liability is introduced, the intention of the guilty party is immaterial to the crime especially when it affects the population as a whole as was reiterated in the case of C Mehta v. Union of India

It must be noted that Provocation, Usage of Drugs, Being under the Influence of Alcohol and Accidents or Mistakes are not defenses against Criminal Liability unless the specific circumstances of the case deem it to be so.

The next most important element in criminal law is that of the bar against the imposition of ex post facto laws wherein a person may be condemned for an act that he performed which at the time was not criminal in nature but is now against the law. This basically means that a person cannot be punished for an act that he/she did in the past which was not of a criminal in nature then. An exception to this can be seen in the case of Norway and Denmark; two countries that passed laws which retroactively condemned cooperation with the Nazis.

Thus Criminal Liability looks into the consequences and punishments that may be given to an individual in accordance to the magnitude of the crime he/she has committed.

Author: Keerthana R,
Christ University, 2nd Year, Law Student

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