Actus Reus- A physical act or omission

Actus Reus and Mens Rea are the two main essentials of an offence or crime. Any act done by a person which is not only harmful to another person but also harmful to society or state is called a crime.  Any physical act done by the person to harm the person and society is Actus Reus and his mental intention to do that crime is Mens Rea. The crime is forbidden by law and if any person has committed the crime, the law provides the punishment for that person. To prove a person guilty in the court of law, the advocate has to prove that the person has done any act which is forbidden by law.

Definition of Actus Reus

Actus Reus is defined as any act or omission of an act of the accused person that results in harm to another person or property of the person or persons. It is a voluntary body movement to do any criminal act. Any physical act of making gestures for criminal assault to the murder of a person and destruction of the property comes under Actus Reus.

Omission as Actus Reus

From the definition of the Actus Reus, we can see that the omission of an act can also be considered as Actus Reus. It means, not taking any action can also become Actus Reus.

To understand both sides clearly, let’s take the example, Amit forcefully took B’s car and ran away. Here, the use of force by Amit against B is the Actus Reus and he did a crime by taking B’s car. In the situation, Amit did a physical act.

Amit is a lifeguard at a pool and it is his job to rescue the people from the pool. In the morning, he is sitting near the pool for his duty. A boy starts to drown in the pool and he is asking for the help of Amit. But Amit did not help that boy and he died in the pool. Here, Amit did not do any act but still, he will be liable for the death of that boy because it was his duty to save him. He did omission of the act.

But in a situation where Amit is a good swimmer. But he is not Lifeguard and it’s not his duty to save anybody from drowning in the pool. Now, a boy was asking for help as he was drowning in the water. Amit saw the boy drowning in the water but he did not take any action to save that boy and the boy died in the pool. Now, even Amit morally did wrong but legally, he will not be punished for the omission of his act, the reason is that it was not his duty to save that boy.

After reading the above examples, we came to know that the person can only be charged for the omission of the act if it was his duty to do some act to save something. There must be the duty of the person to do an act.

In order to prove a person guilty for an act or omission, the advocate must have proven the following facts in the litigation:

  • It was the legal duty of the defendant to do the act
  • The defendant knew that he has a legal duty to do the act
  • The defendant was capable to perform his duty.

The legal duty under the act of omission

The legal duty to do an act can arise in many situations:

  • Relationship between victim and defendant

If the victim and defendant are in a relationship like parents and children, husband and wife, the couple in live-in-relationship, employer and employee in a company or partners in a partnership firm.

For example:

  • it is the duty of the father (who is also a good swimmer) to save his son drowning into the water in front of him.
  • If the mother knows that her son will die if she will not give him the medicines, but she voluntarily does not give him medicines.

These situations and relationships create a legal duty against the victim.

  • Duty imposed by law

If there is any duty that is imposed by the law and the person did not follow that duty, the person shall be punished for his act of omission.

For example, a Lifeguard not saving a child drowning in the water.

  • Duty through a contract between parties

If the defendant has made a contract with the victim to provide him food or any other thing which was important for his survival. This can be an oral or written contract. For example, a defendant promised the victim that he will provide him food and medicines on time, but he voluntarily does not provide him food and due to this, the victim dies.  

  • Defendant wrongfully places the victim in danger

The legal duty can arise in a situation where the defendant wrongfully places the victim in danger. Let us take a simple example, suppose Amit knows that his pet dog will bite Aman if he goes near him. Amit knowing send him near the dog. The dog started biting Aman in front of Amit. He did not save him and the dog injured Aman. Now, this act of omission done by Amit is punishable.

Exceptions to Actus Reus

Involuntary criminal action or omission is the exception for Actus Reus. It means any act or omission done by a person in which he was unable to understand the consequences of his actions due to the person being asleep or unconscious. Any act done by the person when he was unable to understand his actions, will not be liable for that act.

It happens in many cases that the defendant takes the plea that his act was not voluntary or he was not in the situation to understand his actions against the victim. In that situation, the advocate have to prove that his act was voluntary and he was in a state of mind where he was able to understand the consequences of his act.

The court has given judgement in many cases and released the defendant who was intoxicated or a drug addict. The court held in a case that a person cannot be arrested and charged for being a drug addict. As per the judgment of the court, the drug addict is a status, not an action.

Also, in an act of omission if a person who has a legal duty to save the Drowning child was unable to swim due to some major injury on his body cannot be liable for the act of omission because he was unable to perform his duty.


The law does not punish a person who has done or omitted an act involuntarily. Any moral duty cannot be made a person liable for the act or omission of the act. In common law, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. It is very important to know the reason behind the act done by a person before punishing him for the offence charged on him.   

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