Causation Vanishing into a Morbid Silence in Criminal Jurisprudence

Causation Vanishing into a Morbid Silence in Criminal Jurisprudence

A criminal act consists of two parts. Mens rea ( the guilty mind)  and  Actus reus ( the act) The culpability depends on the resultant damage. Volumes have been written about Mens rea. It is being transformed and metamorphosized into finer propositions and the guilt is fixed by the degree of it.  The resultant punishment of the Act depends upon this aspect of the mind.   A causes the death of B by hitting him with  a car. If the intention of killing is proved, A’s liability is for murder.  If knowledge is established, liability comes down to Culpable Homicide not amounting to murder. If negligence is established , it further comes down to causing death by rash or negligent act. If it was due a break failure or some other unforeseen innocent causes it can end in a verdict of ‘no offence’ due to the general exception of  ‘Accident’.Hence the same set of causation can range from the highest to the lowest and even to a verdict of ‘no offence’ depending upon the mental state.   And of course it becomes a tough job for the court to decipher it.

Often the second limb of Actus reus, is not very complicated. A simple objective test enables the jury to decide it. Nevertheless there may be situations wherein the causation ( Actus reus and its chains) can be highly complicated.  For example, A inflicts a mortal wound on B.  In order to get rid of the mortal pain and prolonged suffering that may end in a slow death, B shoots himself and dies.   Here the immediate and proximate cause of death is that of the shooting by B.  Nevertheless the said act was a result of A’s act of inflicting a mortal wound on B.  So only The Creator can say whether B would have died as a consequence of A’s act.  Because B ‘s apprehension of death was his own perception about the injury and the attending circumstance including the apprehension that no one will come to his rescue in time.   In such situations the causation and its chains becomes highly debatable and invites colossal academic attention.

Unfortunately these considerations are being confined to an esoteric group and vanishes into oblivion from our law courts, with the result that we march backward to the periods of Norman conquest where the penal rules were so simple and plain that if a man causes the death of another by any means, under any circumstances, under any conditions, he will be punished with death !!

Many of the causes reflects a casual manner of appreciating these two fundamental principles of criminal liability.    A recent decision arose some interesting thoughts on this aspect.

In an unfortunate incident, a youth died due to food poisoning.  When the matter was taken to the High Court for getting the investigation quashed, the court was pleased to dismiss the plea. I am not on the rightness or otherwise of the result of the decision.   But only on a certain aspect of that judgment.  While dismissing the plea, the court found that “….if it is proved by the prosecution that the persons who are selling the food articles were aware of the consequences of the food being sold, which is likely to cause injuries to health and even cause death, then it will fall under the provisions of Sec. 304 IPC “ In other words, the person who sold the food item knew that it will be consumed by someone. And since the same was adulterated / contaminated, the person who sold it will be liable to be prosecuted for culpable homicide. I respectfully disagree with that proposition. Here the resultant death is not from a single cause like a gun shot, but from a chain of causations.

In order to bind a person with penal consequences, the causation should be coupled and co exists with Mens rea.   Let’s consider the following propositions.

Driving without a license in public and causing death may attract an offence of culpable homicide not amounting to murder since the driver can be attributed with the knowledge that, being unskilled, he may cause death.   X, an unlicensed driver drives a truck through a highway and Y, jumps from the top of a tall building and lands just in front of the truck and got killed. Law will find X, guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Suppose, the truck was parked by X and Y falls on the parked truck and dies. We will say that the driver is not liable. The act of jumping from a tall building with or without the interruption of the driving or parking, will cause death. If that be so, can the mere fact that X was driving the vehicle is liable to be incarcerated. ?!  Now consider the third situation in which the truck was being driven with a lot of hay and Y landed on it safely !!. Here, the act of driving without license has saved Y. Now no one will say that X should be punished for his driving !   In these three situations, the Act of the driver and the Victim remains the same.  And the culpability depends on the resultant damage.  In such situations, the liability can be fixed only with regard to the culpable mind of the accused.

This distinction is the base of the concept that the Actus reus should coexist with Mens rea. The absence of Mens rea will take away the penal consequence and Actus reus cannot exist independently.

In situations like the food poisoning mentioned above, mere knowledge that it will be consumed by someone will not be sufficient. Let us consider one more situation. A husband dies of obesity related cardiac arrest. The poor wife, goes on feeding the children. Since the husband dies of obesity, the wife has every reason to believe that taking delicious food in an excess quantity will cause death. The loving mother goes on feeding the children and causes another cardiac arrest and death. No law will punish her attributing knowledge that excess food causes death.

Here lies the distinction between knowledge, culpable knowledge and Mens rea. A person selling food has every reason to believe that it will be consumed. But in the absence of a clear cut Mens rea, to cause harm, the mere act of selling the food, cannot end in penal consequence even at the cost of losing many lives. The liability of the seller for causing death by rash or negligent act may be a different proposition depending upon facts. Every seller of food to public should take reasonable care and precautions in order to prevent harm and he may be accordingly and proportionately liable for his act once it causes damage.

To conclude, it is not every act that results in some harm that is being punished. It is the act coupled with any of the culpable mental elements like intention, knowledge reason to believe, rashness, negligence or omission, that is made punishable.  And whenever the Act is analyzed, it has to be with the golden scale of Mens rea , lest the penalization will cause reverse effect.

Actus reus and its chains of causation cannot be dealt with casually and objectively ( as is viewed by the witness), but subjectively ( from the angle of the accused ) having regard to the mental element that co exists at the time of the act.


Adv. John S. Ralph is a Lawyer practising at High Court of Kerala.