Legal Status of Insanity- A Critical Analysis

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The term ‘insanity’ is the state of mind wherein a person behaves irrationally out of mental derangement. Legal Status of Insanity as per the Judicial system has been as a person labelled insane is in a state of incapability of differentiating between right or wrong. A person who is insane is considered to be suffering from certain mental ailment which makes one lose reasoning to the point that their actions can barely be anticipated by others.  

According to the Indian Judicial system an insane person has distinct status in the society. A lunatic person is delimited from performing several acts in the society whereas an insane person is often protected from facing consequences, foreknowing the fact that an insane person lacks reasoning.

Tim Burton has said that “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality”. Yes! Rightly thought, since opinion and perception differs from one person to the other. The viewpoint of insanity and the sanity of the status conferred to an insane person is a highly controversial area, which touches the society at large. In this content, light has been shed on the socio legal aspect of insanity with prominence on the rights, restrictions and defense conferred upon an insane person, in accordance with the judicial system, emphasising the prudent laws and precedents.   

The Origin:

In the context of mentally ill persons, the legal status refers to the privileges, remedial right of protection against infringement of their human and other statutory rights along with necessary restrictions which have evolved in due course of time. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 for the first time, though not specifically, yet mentioned the right to be free from inhuman degrading treatment. Later, resolutions like Declaration on the rights of mentally retarded persons (1971) and the Declaration on the rights of the disabled persons (1975) was the beginning of setting up of international minimum standards for the treatment of persons with mental disabilities. Declaration of Hawaii (1992) and ICSER (1996) were some of the conventions who focused upon the protection of rights of people with mental illness. During the British era various laws were enacted to deal with mental illness. Some of them which basically dealt with the establishment of mental asylums and the procedures to deal with such people are The Lunacy (Supreme Courts) Acts, 1858, The Lunacy (District Courts) Act, 1858, The Indian Lunatic Asylum Act, 1858 and the Military Lunatics Acts, 1877. The WHO in 1996 developed the Mental Health Care Law with 10 basic principles to protect or regulate the rights of mentally disabled people.

Rights, restrictions and privileges bestowed upon an insane person by the Law:

The Constitution of India entitles mentally ill people with the fundamental rights which are guaranteed to each and every citizen, to the extent that their disability does not prevent them from enjoying those rights or their enjoyment is expressly or impliedly barred by the Constitution or by any other statutory law. Article 21 of the Constitution of India depicts the maintenance and improvement of public health. The right to life under the ambit of Article 21 means more than just the survival of human being. The Supreme Court through a number of landmark judgments speaks the right to live with human dignity in humane living conditions and right to health. In the context of mentally ill person, all such rights are provided including right to live in the society along with other citizens, work as far as possible and also to lead a normal family life, while protecting them from exploitation.

The Mental Health Care Act, 2017 has defined mental illnesses as a substantial disorder of thinking, mood, perception, orientation or memory that grossly impairs judgment, behaviour, and capacity to recognise reality or ability to meet the ordinary demands of life. It also includes mental conditions associated with the abuse of alcohol and drugs.[1] The Mental Health Care Act of 2017 is a step of the legislators to focus on the various rights of a mentally challenged individual in India. The right to make an advanced directive with respect to the way the person should be treated or to appoint a nominee for conducting duty of taking decision on his behalf is an important right conferred under this Act. The Act confirms right to access healthcare services and specifically right to access such services free of cost to destitute.  Other specified rights under the Act are right to equality and non-discrimination, right to information and confidentiality, right to legal aid and complain and most importantly right to live in a community.

In the very recent judgment of Accused X vs State of Maharashtra[2], the Hon’ble Supreme Court with a three judges bench explained the importance and guidelines of the Mental Health Care Act, 2007 stating that ‘every person with mental illness shall have a right to live with dignity’. In the present case the accused was convicted of rape and murder of two minor girls. The present case raises complex questions concerning the relationship between mental illness and crime. The court in line with the Section 23 (1) of the Mental Health Care Act, 2017 and the Right to Privacy under Article 21 directed the registry to not disclose the name of the Accused.  The Apex Court allowed the Petition to the extent that the sentence of death awarded to the Petitioner is commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life sans any right to remission.[3] Further the Apex Court stated that the mental illness of the Accused X cannot be overlooked and he cannot be allowed to rot in jail without treatment. Hence, the aspiration of the Mental Health Care Act was to provide mental health care facility for those who are in need including the prisoners, with established medical wing at prisons. The State Government was accordingly directed to consider the case of the accused and provide appropriate rights under the said act.

The Indian Contract Act, 1872 considers that mentally ill persons cannot give valid consent for a legally binding contract because of their incapability to understand the nature of the contract and to form a rational judgment. Hence, they do not have the capacity to enter into a valid contract except during lucid intervals.

The Representation of People Act, 1950 invalidates the right of a person with mental incapacity to vote or hold public office under the Indian Constitution, provided that such mental incapacity has to be declared by a competent court.

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, The Special Marriage Act 1954 and similar provisions of in laws of other religions incapacitates a person suffering from mental illnesses to give a valid consent to marriage and under all these personal laws, such marriage is voidable though not void. 

The Indian Succession Act, 1925 considers thata mentally ill person cannot understand the nature of the testamentary document and hence the person cannot make a valid will, except during lucid intervals.

The Indian Penal Code, 1860 considers that an unsound mind can have no criminal liability since ‘mens rea’ is missing from the offence. The defense of insanity is thus a very prominent and debatable general exception granted to an insane person.

The Insanity Defense:

The insanity defense is an affirmative defense by excuse in a criminal case by an accused who is declared as legally insane.

The first known recognition of insanity as a defense to criminal charges was recorded in a 1581 English legal treatise stating that, “If a madman or a natural fool, or a lunatic in the time of his lunacy” kills someone, they can’t be held accountable.[4] British courts then came up with the “wild beast” test in the 18th Century, wherein accused was not to be convicted of criminal offense, if they understood the crime no better than “an infant, a brute, or a wild beast.” In 1843 the first legal test of insanity was codified in British law, through the M’ Naghten case.  The test relies upon presumption of sanity unless the accused proves mental illness to such extent that they are incapable of understanding their own actions. The irresistible impulse test which focuses on the incapability of self- control of accused due to a mental disease and the Durham Rule which states that an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect[5] are the other prevailing tests of insanity. 

In India, insanity defense law, Section 84 IPC is solely based on the Mc Naughten rules and no changes so far have been made since it is drafted. Section 84 of IPC deals with the “act of a person of unsound mind.” “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”. Indian legal system is concerned with legal insanity and not with medical insanity.[6] Section 84 IPC, clearly embodies a fundamental maxim of criminal jurisprudence that is, (a) “Actus nonfacit reum nisi mens sit rea” (an act does not constitute guilt unless done with a guilty intention) and (b) “Furiosi nulla voluntas est” (a person with mental illness has no free will)[7]. The Apex Court in its judgment reported that though accused suffered from certain mental instability of mind even before and after the incident but one cannot infer on a balance of preponderance of probabilities that the appellant at the time of the commission of the offense did not know the nature of his act; that it was either wrong or contrary to law, hence rejected insanity defense.[8] In the context of burden of proof the court in State of M.P. v. Ahmadull[9], states that “under law, every man is presumed to be sane and assumed to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his acts unless the contrary is proved”.

Conclusion: Legal Status of Insanity

Insanity, in the context of medical science is an indeterminate platform and hence unreliable. There are different aspects of mental illness which again hold different impacts on persons and their periphery. An individual, who is apparently not normal is considered to be insane by the society. Medical insanity and legal insanity though associates in the point of social welfare, differs significantly in their independent domain. The parameter of insanity has hardly been determined over the years of debatable frameworks and policies. Medical science segments ‘insanity’ and ‘mental illness beyond cure’ as two different ailments, which falls into separate legal spheres. Legal system considers that an insane person (declared as per a medical practitioner and a competent court of law) lacks reasonableness, but holds the right to live a normal life in a society. The fundamental theory of a criminal is someone who is a threat to the society. Now, how far do the criminal theory and the right of an insane person to live a normal life in the society complements each other to the point of a justified socio-legal system is yet seemingly a baffling concern.  

Contributed By – Ritika Khatua
Designation – Associate


[1] See : Section 2(s), Mental Healthcare Act, 2017

[2] See : The review petition (criminal) no. 301 of 2008 in Criminal Appeal No. 680 of 2007; decided on 12.04.2019

[3] See :  Paragraph 74 of the Judgment

[4] See : https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/insanity-defense.html

[5] See : https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/insanity_defense

[6] See:  Hari Singh Gond v. State of Madhya Pradesh. 2008, 16 SCC 

[7] See:  Bapu @ Gajraj Singh vs State of Rajasthan. Appeal (crl.) 1313 of 2006. Date of Judgement on 4 June, 2007

[8] See:  Surendra Mishra v. State of Jharkhand. 2011, 11 SCC 495.

[9] AIR 1961 SC 998

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