Ignorance of the fact excuses : ignorance of the law does not excuse.
According to this maxim, it is presumed that every one knows the law, though he is not presumed to know every fact. The presumption of knowledge of the law, however, admits of exceptions in doubtful cases. An infant of the age of discretion is punishable for crimes, though ignorant of the law ; but infants under such age are excused by natural ignorance. Persons not of sane mind are excused for their ignorance of the law, for this ignorance they have by the hand of God.
An illiterate person, or one deaf, dumb, or blind, is excused from the consequences of his acts, unless it appear that he was capable of understanding what he was doing, and that he did so understand.
If a man buy a horse in market overt from one who had not property in it, he being ignorant of the fact, in that case his ignorance shall excuse him ; but if he bought out of market overt, or with knowledge that the horse was not that of the seller, no property would pass by the sale.
In the House of Lords it has been held that, under peculiar circumstances, the time for enrollment of a decree, for the purpose of appeal, may be extended beyond the time usually allowed, namely, five years from its date ; as, where the party is under some actual disability, or where he has been prevented by ignorance of the law, or some vis major or casus fortuitus. But this privilege will not be granted to a solicitor, or one supposed to know the law. So, also, where the plaintiff suffered the defendant 1 to sell some of his property under an impression that it had passed to the defendant by a deed of assignment, which was, in fact, inoperative, it was held that he was not entitled to recover the amount of the purchase-money as money received to his use.
The maxim holds good in equity as well as in law. It is best illustrated by the following general example, viz. : — In the absence of fraud or bad conscience, money paid with full knowledge of the facts, but through ignorance of the law, is not recoverable ; whereas, money paid in ignorance of the facts, there being no laches on the part of the party paying it, is recoverable. The following may be given as an instance of money paid under a mistake of facts. Where money was paid on account of a debt, and a dispute occurring afterwards between the parties, a balance was struck, omitting to give credit for the sums so paid ; and the plaintiff paid the whole balance ; he was held entitled to recover back the sum paid on account as money paid by mistake and in the hurry of business. But where A. gave as security to his bankers all his interest in a supposed devise to him, subject to a charge payable out of it of a debt due from him to B., and the bankers afterwards voluntarily paid B., they were not permitted to recover the money back again from B. upon finding that the devise had been revoked.
Ignorance of a fact, as intended by this maxim, may be defined to be that state of mind in a man which upon reflection supposes a certain fact or state of things to exist which does not in truth so exist ; and ignorance of the law, that willful ignorance which neglects or refuses to be informed. For the law is not so unreasonable as to refuse to correct a mistake, or so unjust as to punish a man for natural inability.
1 Co. 177 ; 5 Co. 83 ; Hales P. C. 42 ; Doct. & Stu. 1, 46, 309 ; 2 Co. 3 ; Harman „. Cane, 4 Vin. Abr. 387 ; Brisbane „. Dacres, 5 Taunt. 143 ; Barber v. Pott, 4 H. & N. 759 ; Sargent v. Gannon, 7 C. B. 752 • Teede v. Johnson, 11 Exch. 840 ; Harratt v. Wise, 9 B. & C. 712 ; Kelly'w. Solari, 9 M. & W. 54 ; Wilson v. Ray, 10 A. & E. 82 ; Milnes v. Duncan, 6 B. & C. 671 ; Aikin v. Short, 25 L. J. 321, Ex. ; Emery v. Webster, 9 Exch. 242 ; Beavan v. Countess of Mornington, 2 L. T. (N.S.) 675.