Legal Status of Insanity- A Critical Analysis

Posted On - 1 July, 2019 • By - Ritika Khatua

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.  

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.

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

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,
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

The Indian Contract Act,
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
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,
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.

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
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

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

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

See :

See :

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

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

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

[9] AIR 1961 SC 998

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