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What is Mens Rea?

What is Mens Rea?

Mens rea is a very important aspect of criminal law because it helps in determining the outcome of a case. In the sections that follow, we will look at this important aspect and try and understand what it stands at.
Rujuta Borkar
Mens rea is one of the most important aspects of criminal law, because that is what determines whether a criminal is truly at fault and has indeed committed the crime. Men rea literally means a 'guilty mind' (in Latin) and it therefore becomes an important aspect to look into.

What is Mens Rea in Law

Before getting into the technical aspects of mens rea and what it means, I believe an example to get to the very core of this concept is in order. Let's suppose you were walking into the living room with a lot of bags in your hands. In passing the staircase, while trying to balance all the parcels in your hand, you knocked down your brother's glass trophy and broke it. Your brother comes home and is furious at you for breaking the trophy. He accuses you of being jealous, let's say, and is convinced of you doing it on purpose. And you insist that you had no intention of doing it and that it was an honest mistake.

Let's understand the concept of mens rea through this. The mens rea definition literally means 'guilty mind' or a mind that has the intention of causing harm. There is a difference when an act of crime is committed with the intention and want of committing it and that which happens due to certain unavoidable circumstances. Mens rea means that a person had the intention of committing the crime, with the complete knowledge of the harm that it was going to cause and therefore it makes him guilty. Taking this example into perspective―here, you did not have the 'intention' of breaking your brother's trophy and since you had no mens rea, you are not a 'criminal' in the right sense of the term.

Mens Rea and Actus Reus

An important aspect that goes hand in hand with mens rea is the concept of actus reus when it comes to determine criminal justice. Without one, the other cannot exist. Actus reus is when there is a particular crime committed that results in harm. The concept of mens rea therefore stems from this concept, because without a crime, the 'intention' of that crime cannot be studied and analyzed. The common law states that the unlawful killing of a human (action=actus reus) happens either intentionally or unintentionally. If it happens with an intention of killing, it can be taken as mens rea (guilty mind). But if it happens unintentionally then it needs to be proved. Only then is it possible to extricate a person of the crime.

Though this is the basis of the common law, the degrees of these are seen to be different for different countries.

Degrees of Mens Rea

Technically, mens rea can only be proved when there is a clear admission by the criminal. Which probably does not happen all that very often and therefore the skills of lawyers need to come into force here; where they go about proving that though the actus reus (crime) was committed, there was no intention of doing it due to reasons like negligence, lack of knowledge of the consequences of the problem or recklessness. This then gives us three degrees of mens rea. The first degree is the subjective test in which a person's intention can be proved either due to admission or due to evidence, like a diary whereby it can be proved that a person had the intention of causing harm. The second degree is the objective degree in which a person though had no intention of committing the crime, had the clear understanding and reasoning powers to know the consequences of his actions (which also makes him guilty). The third degree is a combination of both these factors and is called the hybrid test, which goes on to prove the 'intention' or to prove the 'negligence and recklessness' that led to the crime. These could include factors like illness, old age and the like to prove that there was no mens rea involved.

Mens rea therefore becomes one of the most important aspects of any criminal case. The proof of mens rea being a part of a case is a clear indication of the seriousness and severity of that crime and can therefore lead to severe and harsh punishments.