Explain and illustrate the proposition that mistake of fact is a good defence while mistake of law is no defence in the code [MPCJ 2010]

Ans. Section 76 and 79 of the IPC draw distinction between the expressions “Mistake of Fact” and “Mistake of law”. These provisions categorically state that if someone by reason of mistake of fact believes in good faith to be bound or justified to do something and acts accordingly then such mistake of fact is complete defence to all criminal charges arising out of that. But, at the same, the aforesaid provision in terms goes to state that such defence will not be available if anything is done under mistake of law. Thus, section 76 and 79 of the IPC incorporate the common law principle of ‘ignorantia facit doth excusat ignorantia juris non-excusat’ i.e. ignorance of fact excuses, ignorance of law does not excuse.

The justification for exemption of criminal liability on the ground of mistake of fact and ignorance of fact is based on the principal that a man who is mistaken or ignorant about the existence of   a fact cannot form the necessary intention to constitute a crime. On the other hand with respect to mistake of law, every man is presumed to know the law of land except minors, lunatics or insane. Moreover, if mistake of law is allowed to be pleaded as a defense howsoever innocent or genuine it may be then it will lead to anarchy and affect the administration of justice because each and every one will allege that he was not aware of the law. The Hon’ble Apex Court in State of Maharashtra vs Mayer Hans George AIR 1965 SC 722 refused to accept the plea of ignorance of the notification issued by the Reserve Bank of India imposing restriction on the transit of gold.

In conclusion, while mistake of law is no defence but a mistake fact is a complete defence in following circumstances:-

  • That there was a mistake of fact in good faith. As held in State of Orissa vs Ram Bahadur Thapa AIR 1960 Ori 161 that the expression ‘ good faith’ does not require a general standard of due care and attention rather it varies depending upon the maturity and intellectual attainment of the concerned person.
  • The mistake of fact must be of such character that had the supposed circumstances been real they would have prevented the accrual of any criminal allegation in doing that.

Illustration :-

  • A a private person, who has the right to arrest a person committing before him a cognizable and non-bailable, if he arrests B, mistakenly thinking that he has committed murder, when in fact he killed a dacoit in self defence, A is not liable for committing the offence of wrongful confinement, his mistake being one of fact.
  • Another classical example may be mentioned as happened in the case of Chirangi vs State 1952 CriLJ 1212 where Hon’ble Bombay High Court held that since the appellant in a moment of delusion had considered that his target was a tiger and was not his son and he accordingly assailed it with his axe committed no offence because by reason of a mistake of fact he was justified in destroying the deceased whom he did not regard to be a human being but who, as he thought, was a dangerous animal.

Hence, mistake of fact may happen either because a person is ignorant of the existence of relevant facts or mistaken as to them.

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