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Mistake of fact is excusable but mistake of law is not excusable

Every person has some flaws and commits mistakes each day. But all are not punishable. Some are so petty that we don’t even recognize them. 

It can be concluded that those mistakes are excused which don’t frustrate the object of the law. 

Without making this article tedious, let’s know about the mistake of facts and the mistake of law with case laws. 

Mistake of fact 

There is a common law principle – “ignorantia facit doth excusat, ignorantia juris non – excusat” which means ignorance of fact can be an excuse but ignorance of law is not excusable. 

But a question arises why ignorance or mistake of fact is excusable? 

Law presumes that if a man is ignorant about the fact, then he must not have any intention to commit a crime. 

We know ‘mens rea’ ( guilty mind ) is required to constitute a crime. So, if a person dies something with good faith so he must not be punished for his deed. 

Section 76 of Indian Penal Code states that if a person is bound by law or believed to be bound by law and does any act by reason of mistake of fact then he is not punishable but he would be punishable for the act by reason of mistake of Law.

Mistake of Law 

The legal maxim – “ignorantia juris non neminem excusat“which means mistake or ignorance of law is no excuse. But what is the reason behind it? 

There is a common presumption that

everyone knows the law and would be responsible for its breach. 

It has been presumed to safeguard the objective of law otherwise accused will argue that they were not aware of the law. As a result of which court would be forced to acquit them even after knowing the truth. 

Queen v. Prince 

Fact – Henry Prince was charged for the abduction of a girl under sixteen years of age. He argued that the girl told that she is above sixteen and any prudent person can believe her. 

Although the court observed that the belief of the man was reasonable but strict liability has been applied in this case which means they held him liable for the act otherwise the object of the act will be frustrated. 

Held – Henry Prince was held liable under the section 55 of the offence against the person act, 1861

R v. Tolson

Fact – Mr and Mrs Tolson married on 11 September 1880. But after a year Mr Tolson deserted her. After 7 year, Mrs Tolson married another man as she thought Mr Tolson had been drowned. 

But suddenly Mr Tolson came back and she was accused for bigamy under Section 57 of the offences against the person act, 1861. 

Held – she was acquitted from the change because she believed in good faith and her action was just a mistake of fact not mistake of law. 


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