Principles of Criminal Liability- Individual and Joint Liability

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 principles of criminal liability are based on the maxim “Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea”, which means an act committed is not considered as criminal act unless there is a guilty mind. Therefore, the fundamental elements which give rise to criminal liability are-

 (1) Mens rea (the guilty mind) and

(2) Actus reus (the criminal act)

The concept of considering the mens rea or the mental element is the crux of establishing criminal liability except in specific cases of offences against state, counterfeiting of coins, kidnapping and abduction. In Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab[i], 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. Therefore, it is essential to consider the principle of guilty mind in the commission of a criminal act.

The criminal liability so established can have the following variations-

  • Individual Liability
  • Joint Liability.

Individual Criminal Liability-

The concept of individual criminal liability is very simple as where a person has committed a crime, the offender himself alone is punished for the offence. This is the basic rule of all legal systems. All the offences under the Indian Penal Code recognizes individual criminal liability where it prescribes punishment to the offender for the crime committed.

The person who has committed any act which is opposed to the law time being in force is held liable for such act in his individual capacity under criminal law unless specifically exempted. There are certain exceptions to the individual criminal liability under IPC. Chapter IV of the Indian Penal Code provides for general exceptions where the individual is exempted from criminal liability.

Joint Criminal Liability-

Joint liability under the criminal law is established where the offence has been committed by two or more people. Where the offence has been committed by two or more persons, every one of them will be invariably holding the individual liability. But along with this individual liability they are also held jointly liable as all of them have committed the offence together. The Indian Penal Code has provided for the concept of joint liability under Section 34 and further it is incorporated under other provisions of the Code.

Section 34 of IPC provides that where a criminal act is done by several persons in furtherance of common intention of all, then everyone in the group shall be held liable for such criminal act. This provides for individual liability of every member of the group committing such criminal act and also prescribes that the whole group is liable by establishing the joint liability. To prove the offence under section 34, prior meeting of mind is required[ii].Thus, common intention must exist prior to the commission of the criminal act[iii].

For example- ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ have planned to rob a bank. They plan the plot in such a way that, ‘X’ shall get inside the bank and rob the money, ‘Y’ shall be guard ‘X’ from escaping the security and ‘Z’ shall be ready with the vehicle to take ‘X’ and ‘Y’ immediately after the robbery is committed. They had no plans of hurting anyone in the entire process of robbery. But in order to escape the security, ‘Y’ kills the security guard and ‘Z’ in the urgency commits an accident and injuries, two pedestrians. Though, ‘X’ has neither committed the murder nor the accident, he will also be held liable for all the three offences of robbery, murder and causing death by negligence, so as ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. The reason for holding all the three liable for all offences committed by each one of them is that, their common intention was the same and all these acts are committed in furtherance of that common intention.

The concept of joint liability can also be found under the provisions in Sections 120A, 120B and 149. Sections 120A and 120B provide for the offence of criminal conspiracy and Section 149 provides for the offence of criminal acts committed by unlawful assembly. Under the provisions related to criminal conspiracy, the essentials are that, there should be an agreement between two or more persons to commit an illegal act or an act by illegal means. There is no need to act upon such an agreement to commit the offence of criminal conspiracy.

In the case of Sushil Suri v. Central Bureau of Investigation[iv], the Supreme Court held that, the essential ingredient of criminal conspiracy is an agreement to commit an act and hence, mere proof of such agreement is sufficient to establish an offence of criminal conspiracy. Therefore, all the parties involved in such an agreement will be held jointly liable whether there is any act committed in furtherance of such agreement or not.

Further, section 149 of IPC provides that where an unlawful assembly is guilty of an offence committed in furtherance of common object, every member of such unlawful assembly shall be held liable for such offence whether all of them participated in the commission of the offence or not.

In the case of State of Maharashtra v. Joseph Mingel Koli[v], the Court held that, it is well settled that once a membership of an unlawful assembly is established, it is not required by the prosecution to prove that whether the accused has committed the alleged act or not. Mere membership of unlawful assembly is enough to prove the offence under section 149 of IPC. Therefore, every member of the unlawful assembly is held jointly liable.

“The views of the authors are personal

Frequently Asked Questions-

Does joint liability under section 149 also establish vicarious liability?

Yes. In the case of Amerika Rai v. State of Bihar[vi], the Supreme Court held that, even the presence in the unlawful assembly, but with an active mind, to achieve the common object makes the person vicariously liable for the acts committed by that unlawful assembly.


[i] 1994 (3) SCC 569

[ii]Ramashish Yadav v. State of Bihar, 1999 (8) SCC 555

[iii] Shyamal Ghosh v. State of West Bengal, AIR 2012 SC 3539

[iv] AIR 2011 SC 1713

[v] (1997) 2 Crimes 228 (Bom)

[vi] AIR 2011 SC 1379.

Bharati T V
I am Bharati T V, a student of 5 Year B. A. LL. B from Ramaiah College of Law, Bengaluru. I have a keen interest in exploring various facets of the legal profession. Constitutional law, Corporate laws, and Intellectual Property Rights are my areas of interest. I am passionate about researching and analyzing the provisions of various legislations. The most exciting experiences in my law school are Moot Courts and ADR Competitions which have enhanced my researching skills. I am a great lover of Carnatic Classical Music.