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A Public Wrong is a Crime. It is an injury to the State even though the victim of the crime is an individual. Acts of crime are considered anti-social. Hence the States takes the responsibility of punishing the criminal in the interest of state. Acts that are not punishable by the State are not treated as crimes even though people violate moral principles. The term Crime is derived from Latin word crimen meaning offence and also wrong-doer. There are Four stages of committing a crime. Various Theories and Kinds of punishments are prescribed for crimes.

Definition of Crime

Crime may be defined as an act or omission, which the society has of thought fit to punish or otherwise deal with under its laws for the time being in force. The different acts and or omissions so punishable under the law are known as crimes.

Blackstone defined crime as “an act committed or omitted in violation of public law forbidding or commanding it”.

Many prominent jurists have made attempts to define Crime. According to Glanville Williams “a crime is a legal wrong that can be followed by criminal proceedings which may result in punishment”.

Professor Kenny defined crimes in the following terms: “Crime is a harmful human conduct that sovereign desires to prevent.”

Salmond defines crime as “an act deemed by law to be harmful to society in general even though its immediate victim is an individual”.

John Austin defines crime “a wrong which is pursued by the sovereign or his subordinates is a crime.”

Sir William Blackstone in his 'Commentaries on Law of England', Sir William Blackstone defined Crime as “an act committed or omitted in violation of Public Law forbidding or commanding it”.

Elements of Crime

The following elements are to be satisfied to constitute an act as a crime.

  1. Human Being
  2. Mens rea
  3. Actus reus
  4. Injury

Human Being

The first essential element of a Crime is that it must be committed by a human being. In case, the crime is committed by an animal, its owner is subject to Civil/Tortious liability.

Parties to crime

The four parties to crime at early common law were principals in the first degree, principals in the second degree, accessories before the fact, and accessories after the fact. These designations signified the following:

  1. Principals in the first degree committed the crime.
  2. Principals in the second degree were present at the crime scene and assisted in the crime’s commission.
  3. Accessories before the fact were not present at the crime scene, but assisted in preparing for the crime’s commission.
  4. Accessories after the fact helped a party to the crime avoid detection and escape prosecution or conviction.

In modern times, the parties to crime are principals and their accomplices, and accessories. The criminal act element required for accomplice liability is aiding, abetting, or assisting in the commission of a crime. In many jurisdictions, words are enough to constitute the accomplice criminal act element, while mere presence at the scene without a legal duty to act is not enough. The criminal intent element required for accomplice liability is either specific intent or purposely or general intent or knowingly.

Example Cases

  • R vs Prince (1875)
  • R vs Bishop
  • R vs Mrs. Talson
  • R vs Wheat & Stock

Mens rea

A crime is done with a criminal intent.

Actus reus

There should be an external act. The Act and the mens rea should be concurrent and related.


There should be some injury or the act should be prohibited under the existing law. The act should carry some kind of punishment.

Essential constituents of a crime

  1. An act or omission forbidden or commanded by law.
  2. Violation prevented by sanction of punishment.
  3. Wrong doer punished only after following a procedure established by law.

Basic Principles of Criminal Liability

An act to amount to a crime must conform to the following two cardinal principles of criminal liability.

  1. No one is held criminally liable unless he had done an act which is expressly forbidden under the criminal law.
  2. There is no liability under criminal law for omissions, unless there is a duty imposed by law to do the act

Essential elements of crime elaborated

Criminal law is part of today's interdisciplinary web where different fields may be combined to get a better understanding of a particular phenomenon. Criminal law has been greatly influenced by such fields as psychiatry and forensic science. In countries that follow the modern tradition of law a criminal offence consists of mens rea or mental state and the accompanying actus reas or act. Improper desires alone are not sufficient to constitute a crime. In practice one logically looks at the act first and then the mental state. The mental state is an internal phenomenon that can only be judged by looking at external evidence. The mental state and act must concur to establish a criminal offense. There is an age-old maxim: ‘Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea’. Criminal law is based on the above maxim.

It means that there can be no crime without a guilty mind.

Two components of a crime are:

  1. Actus Reus (Guilty Act)-Physical element
  2. Mens rea (Guilty Mind)-Mental element.

Actus Reus

Actus reus is Latin for “guilty act”. Actus reus refers to the act or omission that comprise the physical elements of a crime as required by statute. The actus reus includes only voluntary bodily movements. Such bodily movement is prevented because the society has an interest in preventing it. The actus reus requirement can also be satisfied by an omission. This is true only when the individual had a duty to act, and failed to act. For the purposes of criminal liability, an individual may be under a duty to act if:

  • A statute requires a person to act in a certain way.
  • A contract requires a person to act in a certain way.
  • Some special status relationship exists that creates a duty to act in a certain way (i.e. parental responsibilities, husband and wife responsibilities).
  • A voluntary assumption of care creates a duty to act in a certain way.
  • The individual created the risk.

The act is the other essential element of a crime. It must be voluntary. The following are not voluntary acts within the meaning:

  1. a reflex or convulsion;
  2. a bodily movement during unconsciousness or sleep;
  3. conduct during hypnosis or resulting from hypnotic suggestion;
  4. a bodily movement that otherwise is not a product of the effort or determination of the actor, either conscious or habitual.

Actus reus is the physical element of committing a crime. It may be accomplished by an action, by threat of action, or exceptionally, by an omission to act, which is a legal duty to act. The actus reus is a failure to act. There must be a duty of care. A duty can arise through contract, a voluntary undertaking.

For examples—

  1. The act of A striking B might suffice.
  2. A parent's failure to give food to a young child also may provide the actus reus for a crime.
  3. It may be by a blood relation with whom one lives.
  4. It may arise occasionally through one's official position.
  5. Duty also can arise from one's own creation of a dangerous situation.
  6. Switching off the life support of someone in a persistent vegetative state is an omission to act and may not be criminal in certain circumstances.

Discontinuation of power is not a voluntary act. It is not grossly negligent. It may be in the patient's best interests. In such circumstance, no crime takes place. It was for the doctors to decide whether treatment was in the patient's best interest. It was reasonable for them to conclude that treatment was not in the patient's best interest, and should therefore be stopped, when there was no prospect of improvement. It was never lawful to take active steps to cause or accelerate death, although in certain circumstances it was lawful to withhold life sustaining treatment, including feeding, without which the patient would die.

An actus reus may be nullified by an absence of causation. For example, a crime involves harm to a person. The person's action must be but for cause and proximate cause of the harm. If more than one cause exists (e.g. harm comes at the hands of more than one culprit) the act must have “more than a slight or trifling link” to the harm. Causation is not broken simply because a victim is particularly vulnerable. This is known as the thin skull rule. It may be broken by an intervening act (novus actus interveniens) of a third party, the victim's own conduct or another unpredictable event. A mistake in medical treatment typically will not sever the chain, unless the mistakes are in themselves “so potent in causing death.”

A lower threshold of mens rea is satisfied when a defendant recognizes an act is dangerous but decides to commit it anyway. This is recklessness. It is the mental state of mind of the person at the time the actus reus was committed. For instance, if C tears a gas meter from a wall to get the money inside, and knows this will let flammable gas escape into a neighbour's house, he could be liable for poisoning. Courts often consider whether the actor did recognize the danger, or alternatively ought to have recognized a risk. Of course, a requirement only that one ought to have recognized a danger (though he did not) is tantamount to erasing intent as a requirement. In this way, the importance of mens rea has been reduced in some areas of the criminal law but is obviously still an important part in the criminal system.

A killing committed with specific intent to kill or with conscious recognition that death or serious bodily harm will result, would be murder, whereas a killing effected by reckless acts lacking such a consciousness could be manslaughter or culpable homicide not amounting murder. The physical act of committing an offence (actus reus) is more than an act. It can be an omission to act or a “state of being.” For example if one is in possession of an illegal narcotic, one is not acting or failing to act but merely in possession. This is a state of being. Omissions to act can also be crimes (a failure to act when required to do so by law).

If a parent fails to provide the basic necessities for children’s survival the failure to provide is an omission and a crime.

The majority of crimes are acts or kinds of misconduct. Proof of the physical element requires more than simply determining an act, omission or state of being exists. It is necessary to consider the four things-conduct, consequences, circumstances and causation. The conduct must be as described earlier an act, omission to act or a state of being as outlined in a specific section of the criminal charge. Of particular importance to the concept of conduct is that it be voluntary. The law will not hold someone criminally responsible for an involuntary act. Consequences refer to the outcome of a specific act. For a homicide the consequence would be the death of a human being.

The circumstances aspect of the actus reus refers to the relevant circumstances under which an act must occur to be criminal. In the case of the crime of trespassing at night the relevant circumstances would be that the act occurred at night, on someone’s property other than of his own and that he entered the property without consent or lawful excuse. The final element is causation, meaning that the conduct of the accused person must be shown to have caused the consequence (the criminal act) to occur. If S is charged with murdering B then it must be proved that Sally’s conduct caused the death of Bill.

Actus Reus is made up of three elements.

  1. Human action i.e.conduct.
  2. Result of the conduct i.e., injury.
  3. Such act is prohibited by law.


It is a Latin phrase, meaning “guilty mind”. This is the mental element of the crime. A guilty mind means an intention to commit some wrongful act. Intention under criminal law is separate from a person's motive . It is a blame-worthy mental condition. Culpable state of mind is an element-

1. A person is not guilty of a crime unless that person acted intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently, as the law defining the crime specifies, with respect to each other element of the crime. When the state of mind required establishing an element of a crime is specified as “willfully,” “corruptly,” “maliciously” or by some other term importing a state of mind, that element is satisfied if, with respect thereto, the person acted intentionally or knowingly

2. When the law provides that negligence is sufficient to establish an element of a crime, that element is also established if, with respect thereto, a person acted intentionally, knowingly or recklessly. When the law provides that recklessness is sufficient to establish an element of a crime, that element is also established if, with respect thereto, a person acted intentionally or knowingly. When the law provides that acting knowingly is sufficient to establish an element of the crime, that element is also established if, with respect thereto, a person acted intentionally behavior as stimulus and response under the theory of behaviorism. The theory of behaviorism may be analygized with a black box which receives input and produces output. Behaviorism fails to provide an explanation for the complex processing that goes on within the brain. The field of cognitive psychology filled the void by not only dealing with the more intricate function of the human brain or mind, but also developed new theories of human behavior.17 Similarly, in criminal law the model of mens rea and actus reas does not provide a concrete definition of what these elements are and how they are linked with one another. A basic question in cognitive or social-behavioral sciences is how do we make sense of human actions or behavior? In criminal law one may attempt to observe how a criminal act took place before it was understood to be “criminal” in nature. Such an observation requires an exploration of the causal relationship between a defendant's mens reas and actus reas. In other words, a defendant is assumed to have an internal state that leads him or her to commit an act that is allegedly “criminal” in nature.

The physical act represents one element in the commission of a criminal act. The guilty mind represents the second key element. The guilty mind refers to the intention, knowledge or recklessness of the accused. There are four mental states that are recognized within criminal law. Those are intent, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence.

What is going on in the defendant's mind when he is in the process of committing a prohibited act?

Let us observe the mens rea of a hypothetical defendant, A, who is about to commit the premeditated murder of B. For premeditated murder A must have the mens rea or intent in carrying out the crime. Intent requires that A has an instinctual understanding of physical and psychological laws. To illustrate this point, let us assume that A stabs and kills B. In A's trial for premeditated murder the court would infer from the facts presented to it that A who had the objective to bring about B's death intuitively understood the laws of physics and biology to the extent that if he had a knife which he thrust into her heart from a certain angle, with a certain force, and from a certain distance, then her death will certainly occur. From these causations the court may assume that A knew what he is doing. Therefore, mens rea such as intent cannot be considered in a vacuum. It must also take into account the the ability to understand cause and effect relationships. Intent reflects that the offender is aware of the attendant circumstances and he must have the objective to cause a particular result and must be sure that the result will occur. Awareness of the attendant circumstances and how they can be manipulated to achieve certain results implies an understanding of cause and effect. The failure to understand the complexities of behavior may sometimes lead to applying the law as to mens rea and actus reas.

Intention is commonly used to establish a type of guilty mind. Words like “willfully,” “means to know” or “intentionally” are used to describe a state of mind. There are two basic types of intention-specific and general.


A. A person acts intentionally with respect to a result of the person's conduct when it is the person's conscious object to cause such a result.

B. A person acts intentionally with respect to attendant circumstances when the person is aware of the existence of such circumstances or believes that they exist

2. Specific intent offences frequently use the phrase ‘with intent’ or ‘for the purpose of’ to demonstrate a specific purpose behind the crime.

3. General intent crimes are those that do not require a further purpose or intention and are often crimes committed in moments of uncontrolled passion or aggression.

The knowledge form of a guilty mind means that the accused must have knowledge of the specific circumstances of the crime. The phrases “knowingly” or “knowing” are commonly used here to indicate a specific type of knowledge.


A. A person acts knowingly with respect to a result of the person's conduct when the person is aware that it is practically certain that the person's conduct will cause such a result.

B. A person acts knowingly with respect to attendant circumstances when the person is aware that such circumstances exist.


A. A person acts recklessly with respect to a result of the person's conduct when the person consciously disregards a risk that the person's conduct will cause such a result. [

B. A person acts recklessly with respect to attendant circumstances when the person consciously disregards a risk that such circumstances exist.

C. For purposes of this subsection, the disregard of the risk, when viewed in light of the nature and purpose of the person's conduct and the circumstances known to the person, must involve a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable and prudent person would observe in the same situation.

The third kind of intent is recklessness. This is type of intent is found in crimes like dangerous driving causing death. It means that the accused has been unduly careless in their actions by not exercising good judgment and foresight. If one drives 100km/h through a school zone in the daytime, with no intention of killing or harming a child, and hits a child crossing the street and that child dies, the law would use recklessness to establish the guilty mind. Contrary to TV law, it is not necessary for the Crown to establish why an accused has committed an offence (the motive). Motive may be used to establish intention and can be used in sentencing to mitigate or aggravate the sentence depending on the reason for committing the crime.

Criminal negligence

A. A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result of the person's conduct when the person fails to be aware of a risk that the person's conduct will cause such a result

B. A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to attendant circumstances when the person fails to be aware of a risk that such circumstances exist.

C. For purposes of this subsection, the failure to be aware of the risk, when viewed in light of the nature and purpose of the person's conduct and the circumstances known to the person, must involve a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable and prudent person would observe in the same situation.

Different forms of mens rea are

Intention (desire to bring about certain consequences or desire to do an act.)

  1. Motive (the reason or ground of an action.)
  2. Knowledge (awareness of the consequences.)
  3. Recklessness (foresees the consequences of his conduct, does not desire it, but is quite indifferent to the consequences.)
  4. Negligence (want of care and protection which a reasonable man would have taken under the particular circumstances.)

Indian Penal Code defines the following expressions

1. Section 23. “Wrongful gain” “Wrongful gain” is gain by unlawful means of property which the person gaining is not legally entitled. “Wrongful loss”- “Wrongful loss” is the loss by unlawful means of property to which the person losing it is legally entitled. Gaining wrongfully, losing wrongfully- A person is said to gain wrongfully when such person retains wrongfully, as well as when such person acquires wrongfully. A person is said to lose wrongfully when such person is wrongfully kept out of any property as well as when such person is wrongfully deprived of property.

2. Section 24. “Dishonestly” Whoever does anything with the intention of causing wrongful gain to one person or wrongful loss to another person, is said to do that thing “dishonestly”.

3. Section 25. “Fraudulently” A person is said to do a thing fraudulently if he does that thing with intent to defraud but not otherwise.

4. Section 26. “Reason to believe” A person is said to have “reason to believe” a thing, if he has sufficient cause to believe that thing but not otherwise.

5. Section 27. Property in possession of wife, clerk or servant When property is in the possession of a person's wife, clerk or servant, on account of that person, it is in that person's possession within the meaning of this Code. Explanation: A person employed temporarily or on a particular occasion in the capacity of a clerk or servant, is a clerk or servant within the meaning of this section.

6. Section 39. “Voluntarily” A person is said to cause an effect “voluntarily” when he causes it by means whereby he intended to cause it, or by means which, at the time of employing, those means, he knew or had reason to believe to be likely to cause it. Illustration A sets fire, by night, to-an inhabited house in a large town, for the purpose of facilitating a robbery and thus causes the death of a person. Here, A may not have intended to cause death; and may even be sorry that death has been caused by his act; yet, if he knew that he was likely to cause death, he has caused death voluntarily

7. Section 43. “Illegal”, “Legally bound to do” The word “illegal” is applicable to everything which is an offence or which is prohibited by law, or which furnishes ground for a civil action; and a person is said to be “legally bound to do” whatever it is illegal in him to omit.

8. Section 52. “Good faith” Nothing is said to be done or believed in “good faith” which is done or believed without due care and attention.

Causation in Crime

A man is said to have caused the actus reus of a crime if that actus would not have occurred without his participation in what was done. A man will be criminally liable for such consequences of his conduct as he foresaw or ought to have foreseen. A man will be criminally liable, even where there is no physical participation (by instigating another person to commit a crime) - where the participation is indirect (by using an innocent agent) He will not be liable - if there is intervention of another person and that intervening act becomes the immediate and direct cause of the consequence)

Unless otherwise expressly provided, a culpable mental state need not be proved with respect to:

A. Any fact that is solely a basis for sentencing classification;

B. Any element of the crime as to which it is expressly stated that it must “in fact” exist;

C. Any element of the crime as to which the statute expressly provides that a person may be guilty without a culpable state of mind as to that element;

D. Any element of the crime as to which a legislative intent to impose liability without a culpable state of mind as to that element otherwise appears;

E. Any criminal statute as to which it is expressly stated to be a “strict liability crime” or otherwise expressly reflects a legislative intent to impose criminal liability without proof by the State of a culpable mental state with respect to any of the elements of the crime; or

F. Any criminal statute as to which a legislative intent to impose liability without a culpable state of mind as to any of the elements of the crime otherwise appears

As used in this section, “strict liability crime” means a crime that, as legally defined, does not include a culpable mental state element with respect to any of the elements of the crime and thus proof by the State of a culpable state of mind as to that crime is not required.


Mens rea and actus reas cannot be understood alone without having a basic understanding of the cause and effect relationship. In law causation is divided into two categories, namely direct or actual cause and proximate cause. Direct cause involves what is sometimes referred to as the “but for” test which simply states that if there is no precedent then there is no antecedent“. For example, if A had not stabbed B then B would not be dead. This would be the simplest case that a prosecutor would present to the trier of fact. Causation, however, becomes much more complicated when one looks at proximate cause in which the defendant's chain of acts and their results becomes the consideration. Under proximate cause the closeness of the act and result are looked upon in determining whether the defendant should be held criminally accountable. For example, is A guilty of first degree murder if he stabs B who later dies at the hospital due in part to the hospital's negligence.

  • Crime is against the State while Tort is against an individual.
  • A Vice is a personal offense such as drinking alcohol, smoking etc.
  • A Sin is an offense against the God and divinity. Examples including not showing respect to God, not showing sympathy at others

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