General Exceptions:Mistake


Chapter IV of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 has provided various defences for a person accused of an offence under this Code. Criminal Law consists of mens rea and actus rea, the principles prescribed in Chaper IV deal with circumstances which preclude the existence of mens rea. Kenny has stated these principles as conditions of exemption from criminal liability. General exceptions can be classified into excusable and justified defences.

1. Excusable Defences

  • Mistake (S. 76 & 79)
  • Accident (S. 80)
  • Infancy (S. 82 & 83)
  • Insanity (S. 84)
  • Intoxication (S. 85 & 86)

2. Justified Defences

  • Judicial Acts (S. 77 & 78)
  • Necessity (S. 81)
  • Consent (S. 87-89 & 92)
  • Communication (S. 93)
  • Trifle Acts (S. 95)
  • Duress (S. 94)
  • Private Defence (S. 96- 106)

Mistakeunder Chapter IV

Sec. 76 and 79 contains the provision of mistake. According to Russel, mistake would be a mistake if;

  • If the act is justified on the basis of the state of things believed to exist, if true.
  • The mistake must be reasonable.
  • The mistake must be of fact and not of law. 1

“Ignorantia facti doth excusat; ignorantia juris non excusat”

This maxim implies, ignorance of fact is an excuse, but ignorance of law is no excuse.

Sec. 76 of the Indian Penal Code states, an act will not be an offence if it is committed in a bona fide manner by a person who by mistake of fact believes himself to be bound by law or who bound by law. Justice Coke observed that any mistake which is honest and reasonable is the same as infancy or lunacy as there exists absence or perversion of reasonable faculty.

Illustration: A soldier on command of his superior fires on a mob believing himself to be in conformity with law, the soldier has committed no offence.

Mistake of fact will not be a valid defence if the act committed is illegal itself.

Case: R v. Princes2

The accused was charged of unlawfully taking an unmarried girl of 16 years against the will of the father, it was found that the accused had bona fide and reasonable belief that the girl was older than 16 years. It was held that the defence was not valid on the grounds that the act of abduction is a wrongful and immoral act.

Acts done in moments of delusion are also covered under S. 76.

Case: Chirangi v. State3

The accused in a moment of delusion believed his only son to be a vicious animal, a tiger and subsequently assailed him with an axe. It was held that he was justified as he mistook a human being to be a dangerous animal and was not held liable for his mistake.

Sec. 79 of the Indian Penal Code states that an act will not be deemed to be an offence if a person who is justified by law or believes himself to be justified by law in good faith by mistake of fact commits an act which is an offence.

Illustration: A believes to see B commit a murder. A in good faith, believing B to have committed a murder, captures B to bring him before the proper authorities. A has committed no offence, even though it may be revealed that B was acting in self-defence.

The legal maxim, “ignorantia facti excusat ignorantia juris non excusat which means ‘ignorance of fact excuses, ignorance of law does not excuse’ is found to be harsh by some jurists but it is believed that this helps compel people to abide by the law which would otherwise encourage ignorance. In America, a distinction is drawn between ‘malum in se’ and ‘malum prohibitum’ while in England such cases are referred to the executive clemency. No such distinction has been made in India, and hence it has been suggested for there to be excusable ignorance of law.

In the case of The King v. Tustipada Mandal4, guidelines in the defence of mistake of law or fact has been laid down;

1. When the act is plainly criminal and is severely punishable if certain circumstances co-exist, ignorance is no answer.

2. When the act is prima facie innocent and proper ignorance can be the answer unless certain circumstances co-exist.

3. The state of mind of the defendant must be of absolute ignorance to the existence of circumstances or of belief of non-existence which alters the act.

4. Where the act in itself was wrong, under certain circumstances criminal, the defence of ignorance cannot be set up.

5. Where a statute has made an act penal, the knowledge would be immaterialif under certain circumstances it is the question upon the wording and object of the statute whether the responsibility of ascertaining the circumstances exist.

Burden of Proof

The general rule is that, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused. And if reasonable doubt is created by the way of evidence as to whether the accused has committed the crime or not, the accused is entitled to acquittal on the ground of benefit of doubt. In the case of burden of proof in context of the general exceptions given in the Indian Penal Code, 1860; the court shall presume the absence of the existing circumstances, which implies that there exists a presumption against the accused and the burden to rebut the presumption lies on the accused but it does not mean that the accused must lead the evidence. Circumstances which would bring the accused under Chapter IV may be proved from the evidence given by the prosecution or otherwise found on record.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is an actual mistake of fact sufficient?

An actual mistake of fact is not sufficient. There has to exist apprehension of danger which must be bona fide in nature and reasonable.

2. Is the maxim ‘respondent superior’ applicable under this exception?

The code does not recognise blind obedience of orders of superiors as a defence under this exception. The person must believe himself or herself to be bound or justified by law by mistake while committing an act in good faith and in a reasonable manner.

3. When is plea of act of state applicable?

The plea of act of state is applicable when:

a. The defendant has authority to act on behalf of the state.

b. If in such an act, the defendant was professing to an act as a matter of policy, outside the law and not as a matter of right within the law.

4. What is the distinction between S. 76 and S. 79?

Sec. 76 deals with cases where a person has committed an act under a mistake, believing himself to be bound by law while S. 79 deals with cases where a person believes himself to be justified by law under a mistake. 

5. Ignorance of law by foreigners?

The maxim “ignorantia facti excusat ignorantia juris non excusat” applies to all and has no exceptions even in the application of a criminal offence. Even a foreigner who cannot be reasonably supposed to know the law be excused.

Edited by Shikhar Shrivastava

Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje 


1. Russel on CrimeVol. 1, 79-80, 11th

2. R v. Princes, (1875) LR 2 CCR 154

3. Chirangi v. State, AIR 1952 Nag. 282

4. King v. Tustipada Mandal,AIR 1951 Orissa 284

5. S.N. Misra, Indian Penal Code, 167-179, (20th ED. 2016) Central Law Publications, Allahabad.