Rights of Persons of Unsound Mind

The following article discusses the legal trend in deciding the rights of persons of unsound mind, drawing a parallel in precedents set down in civil law as opposed to those set down in criminal law. The purpose of the article is to derive and establish the legal purview through which unsoundness of mind is identified and, the rights that accrue thereinafter. The article explores the principles that the judiciary has relied on, and their evolution, or lack thereof. Simultaneously, the article attempts to raise various inconsistencies that exist in the judgments made, raising issues of practicality and equity.


Section 84 of the IPC reads, “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.”

Therefore, following Section 84, a criminal act is exempt from punishment:

  1. if the accused is a person of unsound mind;
  2. if he, at the time of doing it, does not know the nature of the act; or
  3. that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to law.

By precedent, there are four recognized types unsoundness of mind:

  1. idiocy;
  2. unsoundness of mind due to illness;
  3. displayed by a lunatic or a madman;
  4. unsoundness brought on by intoxication.

The definitions of important keywords like ‘lunatic’, ‘insanity’, ‘madman’, ‘idiot’ etc. have not only remained undefined but have also grown redundant due to their political incorrectness. Therefore, these terms remain undefined, with their usage being inconsistent. For uniformity, the author finds it pertinent to mention that the terms ‘unsoundness’ and ‘insanity’ have been used interchangeably, as has been the trend in recent judgments.

Statutory Provisions

The Constitution of India explicitly disqualifies a person from being a Member of Parliament or Legislative Assembly of States “if he is of unsound mind and stands so declared by a competent court”.[1]

Section 16(b) of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 states that a person may be disqualified as a voter if the person, ‘is of unsound mind and stands so declared by a competent court’.[2]

Section 76 to Section 106 of the IPC discuss the General Exceptions Act,[3] wherein a person of unsound mind is exempted from criminal liability. A person who is said to be of ‘unsound mind’ is determined to be so after careful examination of said unsoundness by a medical examiner. The technicalities of this examination are encapsulated in Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, wherein, if a medical examiner deems the person of being of unsound mind, he or she is exonerated by law from being liable. This is based on the foundational principle of mens rea—for liability to arise, a person must be of a guilty mind. However, the term ‘unsound’ itself is not defined expressly, despite its mention in more than 150 laws.[4]

Section 12 of The Indian Contract Act, 1872 determines a person to be of sound mind to make a contract if, at the time of contracting, he is capable of understanding it and of forming a rational judgment as to its effect upon his interests.[5]

Under Section 105 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, the proof of burden to prove unsoundness of mind lies with the accused.[6] Every man is presumed to be sane and to possess a sufficient degree of rationality in order to take responsibility for their crime until the contrary is proved.

The IPC is of particular importance in this regard as it sets down the procedures to ascertain unsoundness, and penal consequences arising thereof if any. The Code stipulates that if at the time of the inquiry or trial, a person is deemed incapable of making his or her defence due to unsoundness of mind, the concerned authority must ascertain whether the person is of unsound mind based on the available medical evidence. If the claim is substantiated by fact and findings, further proceedings are to be postponed.

The accused is exempted from being detained in judicial custody if he is determined to be of unsound mind, provided that there is sufficient security that said person will be taken adequate care of, will not be of harm to themselves or others, and will make an appearance before the Court when asked. This exemption is also extended to cases of non-bailable offences. However, if the bail does not come through due to a lack of satisfactory measures or adequate security, then the person may be detained in a mental asylum. This action is to be reported to the State Government, and the detainment has to comply with the Rules made by the State Government under the Indian Lunacy Act, 1912.[7]

Principles and Precedents

The two elements that Section 84 mentions that are of great importance are: Firstly, that the accused must display characteristics of an unsound mind at the time of doing the wrongful act. The burden of proof lies with the one who alleges insanity.[8] Secondly, the accused must not be aware of the nature of the act or its effects—whether it is contrary to law or morals and, what consequences would arise thereof—at the time of doing said wrongful act.[9]

This dual principle was exemplified in 1950, in Ashiruddin Ahmed v The King,[10] where the Court held that the accused would still benefit under Section 84 even if he was not entirely unsound at the time of the commission of the offence as he did not comprehend that the act was wrong. However, in 1981, in the case of Paras Ram v State of Punjab,[11] an inconsistency arose wherein the accused pleaded insanity, but his claim was declined considering that there existed a selfish motive behind his act. In both cases, the act was same, both allegedly driven by divine intervention, but one supposedly had a selfish motive, and one did not, and therefore, the verdict varied.

Insanity or unsoundness before or after the act cannot comprise a valid defence.[12] In Ashok Dattatraya vs State of Maharashtra,[13] the accused pleaded insanity proving that before the commission of the offence, he had suffered mental derangement. However, taking into due consideration the corroborating facts and evidence, the Supreme Court held that the accused would not be entitled to the benefit under Section 84 as he had to prove his unsoundness of mind at the time of the commission of the offence. However, the Supreme Court did not adhere to the same principle in Shrikant Anandrao Bhosale v State of Maharashtra,[14] stating that “unsoundness of the mind before and after the incident is a relevant fact.”

In Balu Ganpat v State of Maharashtra,[15] the Bombay High Court held that the trial would have to be vitiated if there was a failure to put to trial the basic issues of unsoundness and incapacity of the accused.

The Supreme Court held in I.V. Shivaswamy v State of Mysore[16] that no inquiry needed to be conducted into the unsoundness of the accused if a plea of insanity or unsoundness was not raised at the very outset. The Court further held that if on examination of the accused, it does not appear to the Judge or the Magistrate that the accused is insane, it is not necessary that he should examine medical witnesses and other relevant evidence.

In an early case decided by the Privy Council, Amina Bibi v. Saiyid Yusuf,[17] it was held that the agreement of a person of unsound mind is void. The same has been a guiding principle in Contract Law.[18] However, a person who is usually of sound mind but occasionally of unsound mind may not validly enter the contract when he is of unsound mind. In contrast, a person who usually is of unsound mind but sometimes of sound mind may make an agreement in those intervals when he is of sound mind.

The Court, in Nilima Ghosh v Harjeet Kaur,[19] stated the importance and relevance of whether the defendant in question had mental disability on the date of execution of the agreement while contemplating the declaration of an agreement as void.

It was colloquially discussed in Ashfaq Qureshi v Aysha Qureshi (Nivedita Yadav),[20] that an intoxicated person was of unsound mind and therefore, exempt from fulfilling his or her liability arising out of an agreement made during this effect.

The Court held for the first time in Mohanlal Madangopal Marwadi v Sadasheo Sonak,[21] that in case a person is usually of unsound mind, the burden of proving that he was of sound mind at that time of making an agreement lies with the person who asserts this. In the case that a person is usually in a sound state of mind, the burden of proving that he was of unsound mind at the instance where he agreed to take upon himself liability lies with the person who challenges the validity of the contract. In case of intoxication, the onus lies on party who claims unsoundness to prove that it existed at the time of contracting. The proof must ensure that the party in question was so intoxicated as to be unable to comprehend the meaning and effects of an agreement is made.

In the case of Dahyabhai Chhaganbai Thakkar v State of Gujarat,[22] the Supreme Court succinctly summarised the principles of law based on which they had declined the insanity plea of the accused in the aforementioned case. The Court discussed the Doctrine of Burden of Proof in the context of the plea of insanity, stating that the prosecution is to fulfil the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had committed the offence with the requisite mens rea. It was further held that if the accused were not able to establish conclusively that he was insane at the time of the commission of the offence, the Court would be entitled to acquit the accused on the grounds that the general burden of proof resting on the prosecution was not discharged. This would occur given that there arose a reasonable doubt as regards to the soundness of mind of the accused and/or, the requisite mens rea for the commission of the offence.

In S.K. Nair v State of Punjab,[23] the insanity plea of the accused was denied on the grounds that the accused was capable of logically explaining his act and was aware that he would be punished for such act. However, the judgment relied on certain assumptions that were not entirely founded on fact—firstly, the judgment relied on the general characteristics of paranoia to assert that the accused must have had lucid intervals of rationality and, therefore, understood the nature of the act. Secondly, the judgment assumed that comprehending that one would be punished for one offence by law would automatically register as a realization that the act itself was wrong and unjustified.

In Kanhaiyalal v Harsing Laxman Wanjari,[24] it was held by the Supreme Court that mere weakness of mind is not unsoundness of mind. Mental incapacity, it was postulated, rendered a person incapable of understanding the nature of the agreement and unaware of the fact that they could not understand it as well. With this, the Supreme Court made a felicitous distinction—a person who is of unsound mind is not necessarily mentally incapacitated. It was deemed sufficient a test that the person was incapable of judging the consequences of his acts.

In Inder Singh v Parmeshwardhari Singh,[25] the Supreme Court held that the dilemma at hand was to ascertain whether the person so concerned was entering into the contract after he had understood it and, that he had decided to enter into that contract after forming a rational judgment regarding his personal interest. That did not necessitate that the accused be suffering from lunacy, and only such a situation would disable him from entering into a contract. A person may behave in a normal fashion and despite this, be incapable of forming a judgment of his own insofar as his interest is concerned.

The Supreme Court in 2008, in Hari Singh Gond vs State of MP,[26] held that there was no definition of unsoundness of mind, stating that precedents have treated unsoundness as an equivalent to insanity. The Court took cognizance of the non-existence of a concrete definition of the term ‘insanity’. However, the Court also stated that insanity is a term used to describe “varying degrees of mental disorder”.  A discrepancy arose in 2011, in the case of Surendra Mishra v State of Jharkhand,[27] wherein the Court held that ‘every person who has mental illness is not ipso facto exempt from criminal liability.’ This discrepancy pertained to the fact that the Supreme Court had previously collapsed insanity and mental disorders of all degrees into one category.


The previously accepted norm dictated that in instances where a person may be intoxicated, suffering a mental illness, or underage, they may be declared as being of an unsound mind—this could be limited to the exact instance where liability may arise or a continuing condition during which the cause of action arose.

The Hari Singh judgment encountered widespread criticism because the Supreme Court collapsed legal insanity into medical insanity, thereby rescinding the repeated efforts made by the drafters of various statutes to distinguish between mental illness and unsoundness of mind, in 1872[28] and in 1950.[29] In contrast, the Kanhaiyalal and the Inder Sing judgments reasserted the distinction between unsoundness and insanity in much clearer terms.

Through the precedents enlisted above, one recognizes that civil and contract law are much more well-versed with the changing trends in the rights of those who are of unsound mind. The judgments offer deliberations that are in sync with novel and politically progressive ideas of mental illness and disability. Another consideration, however, is that the stakeholders in these cases suffer losses that are lesser in gravity than what losses might accrue from criminal acts. In 2016, the National Mental Health Survey stated that 150 million Indians have mental illnesses of severity that needs treatment.[30] By definition used by the Supreme Court in Hari Singh, all these people would classify as that of having an unsound mind, subject to perhaps individual scrutiny. Despite the existence of the Mental Health Act, 2017, the trend in deciding unsoundness, and the rights and agency of those with an unsound mind remains unchanged.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Can a person of unsound mind be tried by a court of law for the commission of an offence?
  2. What are the types of unsoundness of mind?
  3. Are the types “lunancy”, “insanity”, and “idiocy” defined anywhere?
  4. Can a person of unsound mind be granted bail in cases of non-bailable offence?
  5. What are the rights and liabilities of a person of unsound mind?


[2] Does Indian Law Disqualify People with Mental Illnesses from Voting, THE WIRE, Soumitra Pathare, https://thewire.in/health/mental-illness-right-to-vote.


[4] Widely cited, but still undefined, THE HINDU, Soumitra Pathare, https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/health/widely-cited-but-still-undefined/article18191442.ece.




[8] AIR (1923) Pat 18717.

[9] AIR (2006) P&H 77.

[10]AIR (1950) CrLJ 225.

[11] (1981) 2 SCC 508.

[12] M’Adam v Walker, (1813) 1 Dow 148 HL.

[13] Ashok Dattatraya vs. State of Maharashtra (1993) CrLJ 3450 Bom.

[14] Shrikant Anandrao Bhosale v State of Maharashtra, (2002) 7 SCC 748.

[15] Balu Ganpat v State of Maharashtra, (1983) Cr. L.J. 1769.

[16] I.V. Shivaswamy v State of Mysore, (1971) 3 SCC 220.

[17] Amina Bibi v Saiyid Yusuf, ILR (1922) 44 All 748.

[18] Law of Contracts, Avtar Singh.

[19] Nilima Ghosh v Harjeet Kaur, AIR (2011) Del 104.

[20] Ashfaq Qureshi v Aysha Qureshi (Nivedita Yadav), AIR (2010) CH 58.

[21] Mohanlal Madangopal Marwadi v. Sadasheo Sonak, AIR (1941) Nag 251.

[22] Dahyabhai Chhaganbai Thakkar vs. State of Gujarat, AIR (1964) SC 1563.

[23] S.K. Nair vs. State of Punjab, SC (1997) SCC 141.

[24] Kanhaiyalal v. Harsing Laxman Wanjari, AIR (1944) Nag 232.

[25] Inder Singh v. Parmeshwardhari Singh, AIR (1957) Pat 491.

[26] Hari Singh Gond v State of M.P., CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 321 OF 2007.

[27] Surendra Mishra v State of Jharkhand, (2011) 11 SCC 495.

[28] Indian Contract Act, 1872.

[29] Indian Lunacy Act, 1950.

[30] Id.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *