Mistake of Fact and Mistake of Law
Mistake of Fact
An act done by a person bound, or by mistake of fact believing himself bound, by law. – Nothing is an offense done by a person who is, or who by a reason of a mistake of fact and not by mistake of law in good faith believes himself to be, bound by law to do it.
Section 79 excuses a person who (i) by the reason of a mistake of fact and not by the reason of a mistake of law (ii) in good faith (iii) believes himself to be bound by law to do a certain act. A mistake of fact consists in an unconscious ignorance or forgetfulness of a fact, past or present, material to the transaction, which does not exist or a wrong assumption that a thing existed in the past when it did not in fact exist. To plead ignorance of fact as an excuse, it is to be proved that the ignorance was in respect of a material fact that was essential to constitute a particular offense.
In the famous case of R. v. Telson, the accused was allowed the defense of mistake of fact against the charge of bigamy in violation of Section 57, Offenses Against Person Act,1861. According to the case, the accused Mrs. Telson’s husband Mr. Telson deserted her after one year of their marriage.
Mrs. Telson tried to trace her husband from all the reliable sources. Upon inquiry, she found out that her husband met with an accident while onboard a ship bound for America and had died. Believing himself to be a widow, she remarried. Soon afterward, Mr. Telson came back and Mrs. Telson was prosecuted for bigamy. The court held that she was not guilty as what she did was a mere mistake of fact.
Another case is Raj Kapoor v. State, a certificate sanctioning public exhibition of a film was granted by a competent authority under the Cinematography Act, 1952. The exhibition of the film was conducted. But according to the provisions of section 292 of IPC, the exhibition was sought to be stopped. The apex court ruled that the producers and exhibitors of the film are protected under Section 79 read with Section 5-A, Cinematography Act as their belief was bona fide that the certificate was justificatory.
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M, jokingly, hit normally on A’s head from behind assuming him as B, his friend. Here M can take the defense of mistake of fact, as his actions can be taken as a reasonable act because he was standing behind B and honestly assumed A as B.
The State of Maharashtra v. Mayer Hans George
In this case, A is an officer of the court. Court ordered him to arrest Y. A arrest Z, as he believes Z to be Y. Here, A can take the ground of good faith or a bona fide intention as a defense in the mistake of fact.
Mistake of Law
It is said that ignorantia facti excusat, ignorantia juris non-excusat, which means ignorance of a fact is excused but ignorance of the law is no excuse. The mistake of law cannot be pleaded as a defense as everybody is bound to follow the law of land. Mistake of Law means ignorance as to the existence of law for certain subjects. A mistake of law comes into existence when a party has full knowledge of facts but comes to an erroneous conclusion as to their legal effects.
The mistake of law cannot be pleaded as a defense as if it is allowed, everybody will advance it as a defense. If the said maxim is allowed as a defense, it will be difficult to prove that the person was really ignorant of the provision or is just pretending to be. Thus, the maxim has no exceptions.
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In Raj Rani Gulati v. CIT, it was held that, even though the ignorance of the law is no excuse, it may be pleaded in defense in tax matters where the liability is penal in nature.
The maxim that ignorance of the law is not excused applies equally to a foreigner. Some dilution in the presumption that everyone knows the law is visible in recent times, though it is doubtful whether a genuine ignorance of law shall be accepted as a valid defense. This shows that roe In Ashok Kumar Sharma v. State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court said that every law cannot be known. This shows that even though not as a complete defense, a genuine mistake of law can be pleaded as a mitigating circumstance.
(Co-Founder, The legal State)
 Section 79, Indian Contract Act
 (1889) LR 23 QBD 168
 Section 57, Offenses Against Person Act,1861
 Raj Kapoor v. State, (1980) 1 SCC 43
 Section 292, Indian Penal Code.
 The State of Maharashtra v. Mayer Hans George, 1965 SCR (1) 123
 R. v. Tustipada Mandal, AIR 19511 ORI 284
 Queen Empress v. R. Fischer, ILR (1891) 14 MAD 342,354
 (2012) 346 ITR 543 (All)
 R v. Barronet and Allian, 1852 Dears CC 51
 Ashok Kumar Sharma v. State of Rajasthan, (2013) 2 SCC 67