In Indian Legal System Insanity Defense is a tool in criminal law to save an alleged from the
accountability of a crime. It is based on the assumption that at the time of the crime, the person
was suffering from a mental illness and therefore, was incapable of understanding what he/she
was doing. It is to be noted here that this is a legal concept and therefore simply suffering from a
mental disorder is not sufficient to prove insanity. The burden of proof to prove insanity is on the
alleged and he/she has to supply the court with evidence similar to that of preponderance of the
evidence as in the civil case.
This article focuses on the concept of insanity in law and how it has become a loophole in the
modern judicial system.
The insanity defense refers to a defense that a defendant can plead in a criminal trial. In an
insanity defense, the defendant admits the action, but asserts a lack of culpability based on
mental illness. The insanity defense in the court is generally taken as an excuse rather being a
justification of the facts and the crime.
In India, Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code describes the defense of insanity. Under the
provision of Section 84, the law protects an unsound minded person and provides him/her
defense from criminal liability, which is also known as the Law of Insanity. This law is based
upon the assumption that whenever an insane person commits a crime in a fit of insanity, he/she
does not have a guilty mind to understand what he/she is doing, and that the act is prohibited by
law. For these reasons, Insanity law has proven to be of great importance in understanding the
mental position of an insane person and in suitable circumstances grant them exemptions from
Origin of Insanity Defense
Stephen in his Digest of Criminal Law states - "No act is a crime of the person who does it, is at
the same time when it is done prevented either by defective mental power or by any disease
affecting his mind firstly from knowing the nature and quality of the act, or secondly from
knowing that the act is wrong. "
In R. v. Arnold, 1 the defendant was tried for wounding and making an attempt on the life of
Lord Onslow. There was enough evidence of the mental derangement of the accused. In this case
Tracy, J. laid down the test as follows - " If he was under the visitation of God, and could not
distinguish between good and evil, and did not know what he did, though he committed the
greatest offence, yet he could not be guilty of any offence against any law whatsoever. "
According to this case a person can claim exemption from liability if by reason of unsoundness
of mind, he was unable to distinguish between good and evil and also did not know what he did.
This test is also known as Wild Beast Test.
Later on, in Lord Ferret's case 2 the above test of ability to distinguish between good and evil
was approved. In this case Earl Ferrers was tried before the House of Lords for the murder of his
steward, who he deliberately shot in revenge for some imaginary wrong. He pleaded insanity in
The second test known as Insane Delusion Test was evolved in Hadfield Case. 3 Lastly in
Bowler's Case 4 the test of capacity to distinguish between the right and wrong was formulated.
These three tests were the early laws relating to Insanity Defense and laid the foundation for the
landmark Mc-Naughton Test.
The English Courts in R v. McNaughton 5 , devised the McNaughton’s Test which formed the
1 (1724) 16 St. Tr. 695.
2 (1760) 19 St. Tr. 885.
3 (1800) 27 St. Tr. 128.
4 (1812) 1 Collinson Lumacy 673.
5 (1843) 8 Eng. Rep. 718, 722.
basis of modern-day Insanity Law and is also the basis of Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code. In
this case, a man named McNaughton killed Edward Drummond mistaking him for some other
person. His state of mind was not sane and therefore the court ordered for his acquittal. But the
jury considering him insane and therefore brought in a verdict of admitting him in a Mental
Asylum. After this judgment in 1843, there was a discussion in the House of Lords, where a five-
point proposition was made. These five propositions were construed as the McNaughton’s rules.
The propositions were as follows:
1.That it is to be presumed that a convict is sane until the contrary is proven.
2.That an insane person would be liable for punishment if he/she knows at the time of the
commission of crime what he/she is doing.
3.That to establish a defense on insanity, the accused by way of his/her insanity should not be in
a position to know the nature and consequences of his/her act.
4.That the delusions to which the accused is suffering should be real.
5.The jury in English Law is responsible for deciding if someone is insane or not.
These propositions became precedent for the law concerning the defense of insanity. The rules
emphasized the observation of “understandability” of an accused in a case where he/she has done
something wrong. It is a test of knowing what is right and wrong.
Negative Aspects of Insanity Defense
It is abolished in some jurisdictions- It is important to note here that not all the courts accept
the plea of insanity in their jurisdiction. It has been abolished at some places, so if any such case
arises which is successful in convincing the jury is transferred to such a jurisdiction where this
provision is followed.
It can lead to increased trial costs - One of the most important points here is that it increases
the trail costs. To prove the insanity the defense will definitely hire a specialist to prove their
point to the court. Also, the prosecution will also do the same. In this process, a significant
amount of money would be used. And among all these only the least number of cases go
successful in taking the defense of indemnity.
It can be very difficult to prove - It is a very big challenge for the defendant to prove the plea
of insanity. Mental illness can be proved by having it checked by an expert who as per his
knowledge, test and experience gives proof of the actual mental status of the accused. Even after
that, it is upon the judges to accept or reject the defense of insanity thus produced. It does not
give any guarantee of relief or solution to the accused.
It can be misused - The defense of insanity can even be misused to escape from the acquittal or
punishment. It is very difficult to examine whether the person was of sound mind or unsound
mind at that point in time. In the end, it all depends on how the judge understands the matter and
gives his judgment.
As of now, we can concur that Insanity Defense has become a loophole for the criminals as the
most popular defense to escape from any crime. It is next to impossible to prove the mental
status of any person at the time when the crime was committed. The redundancy of Indian
Judicial System is also to be blamed here because it simply adds fuel to the fire which makes this
defense lose its stark, and all that matters are word-games. These cases are more complicated
than any other case because here an accused agrees to the commission of a crime but evades the
consequences and this raises brows of any right-minded person.
For these fundamental reasons it could safely be concluded that Insanity Defense Law has lost its
original zeal and has now become a tool for criminals to evade legal consequences. Now the
remedies available to cope up with these lacunas are the formation of more straightforward laws
and tests. The initial step towards reforms could be a mechanism to differentiate between Violent
criminals and Insane criminals, wherein the former are the real culprits. Reforms here can only
be possible when states would make stricter laws to govern such matters and it is high time now
for major reforms in these provisions.