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The Degree of Criminal Culpability: An Analysis in context of Murder and Culpable Homicide

The most popular terms in Criminal Law, one can say are intent and knowledge. Both the terms postulate the existence of a positive mental attitude which is of different degrees. The mental element in culpable homicide i.e. mental attitude towards the consequences of conduct is one of intention and knowledge. If that is caused in any of the three circumstances mentioned in Section 299 IPC, the offence of culpable homicide is said to have been committed.[1]

The term mens rea is being used to connote fault elements such as Intention or recklessness as to specific consequence, and knowledge of, or recklessness as to, a specified circumstance. There are different shades of culpability.

According to Prof. B.B. Pande,[2] there are around 26 shades such as four clauses of section 300, five exceptions of section 300, two clauses of section 299, two clauses of rashness, and like that. However, broadly there are two that are knowledge and intention which will be discussed in this article. With this in mind, the author will try to explain the degrees of culpability required to be proved for the offence of Murder and Culpable Homicide.

Knowledge in Criminal Liability

Knowledge as a manifestation of �mens rea� in criminal liability can be two types. One, knowledge as to circumstance and another as to consequence. Both will be discussed one by one in succeeding paragraphs.
  1. Knowledge as to circumstance

    Knowledge as to circumstance can be clause (c) of Sec. 299,[3] and secondly and thirdly of section 300.[4] In common law, there are three degrees of knowledge that are knowledge of First degree where actual knowledge can be gathered out of true belief i.e. fact and circumstance as it is so. In the knowledge of second degree, there is willful blindness by the accused. In other words, state of mind in accused which deliberately refrains from making inquiry or wilfully shuts eyes to the obvious which a reasonable man would have enquired. The knowledge of third-degree is basically constructive knowledge that is where the accused merely neglects to make an inquiry. If the offender has a thought that there is a possibility and it is more than fanciful, and then he neglects to go for inquiry, then it is constructive knowledge that comes under 3rd degree.

    In sum, the first and second clause (Culpable homicide is an act of causing death (a) With the intention of causing death (b) With the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death) of section 299 refers to intention apart from knowledge and the third clause (With the knowledge that such act is likely to cause death) refers to knowledge alone without intention.
  2. Knowledge about consequence

    Knowledge about consequences can be divided into two parts. First, actual knowledge as is given in clause 2 of section 300. Second, imputed or inferred knowledge i.e. inference of knowledge drawn from result or consequence. The inferred knowledge can be checked by making two enquires. Firstly, whether the facts then present in the mind of the accused was sufficient to have directed his mind. This will lead to infer that his act was likely to cause death. Secondly, not only the knowledge which is present in the mind of the accused but judging from the effects, ought to have been present in the accused are also relevant.

In emperor v Fox (1880),[5] the accused dissatisfied with the work of punkha koolie in managing punkha, went up to him and struck him blows. The Koolie was suffering from an enlarged spleen and died on the spot. The accused was held liable only for simple hurt and not culpable homicide. Whereas, in Ganesh Dooley's case,[6] a snake charmer was exhibiting a poisonous snake whose fangs he knew had not been extracted and to show his skill but with no intention to kill, placed the snake on the head of one spectator. The spectator was bitten by the snake and died in consequence. The snake charmer was held guilty of culpable homicide as he had knowledge about the consequence of his act.

In different judgments, it has been repeatedly held that murder is the species and culpable homicide is the genus i.e. all murders are culpable homicide but vice versa is not true. Section 300 which provides circumstances when culpable homicide will be murder also laid down exceptions where culpable homicide does not amount to murder and can be punished under section 304. If there is intent and knowledge then it would come under section 304 part I. however if there is only knowledge and no intention to cause bodily injury and murder, then it is a case of section 304 part II.

In Vipin sharma v state (2018),[7] Court relied on Radhey Shyam case[8] where due to an outbreak of sudden fight, it was held under exception 4 of section 300. However, in this case, there was premeditation to cause bodily injury which was sufficient in the ordinary course to cause death and that is why it was held under clause 3 of section 300.

Degree of Culpability
In Ruli Ram v State of Haryana (2002),[9] as first observed in State of A.P. v. R. Punnayya,[10] the court reiterated that there are three degrees of culpable homicide for the purpose of facing punishment, proportionate to the gravity of the generic offence. These are, culpable homicide of 1st degree, e.g. murder. Then comes, culpable homicide of the second degree, e.g. section 304 part 1 and then there is the culpable homicide of the third degree which is the lowest type, e.g. Section 304 part II.

In R v Govinda (1877)[11], the accused, a young man of 18 years old, knocked down his wife (15year old), kept a knee on her chest, and gave two to three violent blows on her face. This act produced extraversion of blood on her brain and afterward, the wife died due to this. The act was not committed with the intention of causing death and the bodily injury was not sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course of nature.

The accused was held liable for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Justice Melvin gave the distinction between murder and culpable homicide as when the Death is caused intentionally, for instance, clause (a) to section 299 and clause (1) to section 300 show that whenever there is an intention to cause death, it amounts to murder unless falls within any of the exceptions of section 300.

Clause (b) of section 299 corresponds with section 300 (2) and (3). The main distinction between them lies in the knowledge part of the accused that the victim is likely to die. The offense is murder if the accused knows that the particular person injured is likely either due to ill health or special circumstances is going to die by injury which would not ordinarily be sufficient to cause death. For example- illustration (b) of section 300, where A, knowing that Z is laboring under such a disease that a blow is likely to cause his death, strikes him with the intention of causing bodily injury. Z dies in consequence of the blow.

A is guilty of murder, although the blow might not have been suffi�cient in the ordinary course of nature to cause the death of a person in a sound state of health. But if A, not knowing that Z is laboring under any disease, gives him such a blow as would not in the ordinary course of nature kill a person in a sound state of health, here A, although he may intend to cause bodily injury, is not guilty of murder, if he did not intend to cause death, or such bodily injury as in the ordinary course of nature would cause death.

The comparison of section 299 (b) and section 300(3) would show that the offense is culpable homicide if the bodily injury intended to be inflicted is likely to cause death, it is murder if such injury is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. Section 299 (b) talks about the possibility and section 300(3) talks about the possibility or more probability. The word �likely� means probably, i.e. when the chances of happening a thing are fifty-fifty then it can be said that the thing may �probably happen�; when the chances of its happening are almost certain, it is �most probably to happen.

The sufficiency is the high probability of death in the ordinary course of nature and when this exists and the death ensues and the death ensues and the causing of such injury is intended, the offense is murder. Sometimes, the nature of the weapon, part of the body where injury is caused, etc. helps in determining the intentional injury as sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course of nature. If the intended injury is or cannot be said to be sufficient in the ordinary course to cause death, that is to say, the probability of death is not so high the offense does not fall within the definition of murder but within culpable homicide not amounting to murder or something of less degree.

Section 299 (c) and section 300 (4) talks about knowledge. Both the clauses require knowledge with a very high degree of probability. For example- firing at the target near a public road may be an act that is known to be likely to cause death and liability would be culpable homicide not amounting to murder but firing in a crowd of persons would be an act that is so imminently dangerous that it amounts to murder.

The distinction between the two can be understood by cases of Emperor v. Dhirajia[12] and Gyarsibai v State.[13] In the former, a woman who was running away from her husband jumped into the well with her child because of panic/fear that her husband is following her.

The child died in the consequence. The court held her liable under Section 304 part II as she had a valid reason to jump and the court saw it as knowledge likely to cause death as under Sec 299 (c). Whereas in the latter case, the woman was held liable under section 300 (4) holding that act of jumping into the well along with her children was so imminently dangerous that in all probability it would cause the death of children as she had no valid excuse for risking her children�s life and causing death.

The line between murder and culpable homicide is razor-thin. The courts have tried time and time again to distinguish between the two, despite the fact that the end result is the same, with the �intention� behind the crime being the most relevant thing to consider. One critique is that there is no definite area or proper demarcation between murder and culpable homicide but if we follow the judgments of different High Courts and Supreme Court over the time period, we can see a pattern that it all depends on the degree of culpability.

The spectrum of Criminal Culpability can be summarised as situations of �possible� and �probable to happen� lie on the lower end of the spectrum leading to culpable homicide. Whereas, on the other end of the spectrum lie �most probable� and �virtually certain� situations that lead to a conviction for murder.

However, it mostly depends on the case facts, and the wisdom of judges, and how they perceive the facts. With the evolving laws, more jurisprudence needs to be developed in this area as well to avoid confusion and for better delivery of justice.

  1. Vipin Sharma & Ors. vs State (2018) Delhi High Court, CRL. A. 709/2018, Crl.M. (Bail) Nos.1076-78/2018
  2. Pande, Bhuvaneshwar B., �LIMITS ON OBJECTIVE LIABILITY FOR MURDER.� Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 16, no. 3, 1974, pp. 469�482.
  3. Culpable homicide is an act of causing death: clause ( c) With the knowledge that such act is likely to cause death
  4. Culpable homicide is considered to be murder if:
    The act is committed with an intention to cause death
    The act is done with the intention of causing such bodily injury for which the offender has knowledge that it would result in death.
    With the intention of causing bodily injury which is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death.
    The person has the knowledge that his act is so imminently dangerous that in all probability, it would cause death or such bodily injury as is likely to cause death and still commits the same.
  5. emperor v Fox (1880) ILR 2 All 522
  6. The Empress vs Gonesh Dooley And Gopi Dooley (1880) ILR 5 Cal 351
  7. Vipin Sharma & Ors. vs State (2018) Delhi High Court, CRL. A. 709/2018, Crl.M. (Bail) Nos.1076-78/2018
  8. Radhey Shyam vs State Nct Of Delhi, CRL.A.1348/2012
  9. (2002) 7 SCC 691
  10. 1976 4 SCC 382
  11. 1877 ILR 1 Bom 342
  12. AIR 1940 All 486
  13. 1953 CriLJ 588

Award Winning Article Is Written By: Ms.Kritika
Is an LL.M. (Constitutional and Criminal Law) student at National Law University, Delhi
Awarded certificate of Excellence
Authentication No: MA33993429950-12-0521

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