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Above: A legal assistance-cum-awareness camp in Delhi.  Citizens should not only be aware of their rights but also have sufficient knowledge about various laws/Photo: dslsa.org

While it cannot be entirely done away with, in a recent interpretation, the Supreme Court showed that the maxim “ignorance of law is no excuse” need not be used bluntly and in all cases

By Justice Bhanwar Singh and Dr NK Bahl

The Latin maxim, Ignorantia juris neminem excusat, translated into English means “ignorance of law is no excuse for breaking it”. This is one of the cardinal principles of jurisprudence. The rationale behind this principle is that if ignorance was an excuse, a person charged with criminal offence or involved in a civil suit would merely claim that he was unaware of the law in question in order to avoid liability, even if he actually knew what the law in question was.

The doctrine first shows up in the Bible in Leviticus 5:17. It says that if a person sins and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, he is guilty and will be held responsible even though he does not know it. The presumed knowledge of law imputes that one is bound by law even if one does not know of it.

However, it is impossible, even for someone holding graduation, post-graduation or even a doctoral degree in law, to be aware of each and every legal provision in operation. This is the price paid to ensure that wilful blindness cannot become the basis of expulsion.

We have so many forms of laws—civil, criminal, revenue, personal, family, taxation, international, to name a few—but it is well settled that ignorance of any law cannot become an excuse for breaking it. No­body is permitted to plead ignorance as a defence to escape the rigours of law. If it were, it would be very easy for any person to take the plea of ignorance though he was actually aware of the law and its consequences.

The defence of ignorance is based on negative facts, which is very difficult to prove as one has to study the mental position of the law-breaker which is really a difficult exercise. Perhaps because of all these reasons, the policy of law has always been not to accept the plea of ignorance of law.

The maxim that “ignorance of law is no excuse for breaking it” has developed from ancient Roman law. In the good old days, the laws were numbered and thus could be easily remembered and understood. The number of laws in that period was very small and one could have counted them. Therefore, in those circumstances, the maxim may be said to be justified.

Now in our country thousands of laws are enacted by Parliament and state legislatures. Rules are also framed by the Executive under various Acts. The Supreme Court and 25 High Courts have framed rules of their respective procedures. Besides these rules, various notifications and circulars are also issued under relevant legislation. Judicial precedents in the form of ratio decidendi are also consistently followed by the courts in view of Article 141 of our Constitution.

Thus, it is humanly impossible to remember, much less understand, the chunk of laws stacked before citizens. In India, laws are framed in English and Hindi, with their translations in vernacular languages. But what about illiterates or those who can’t understand English or Hindi? Therefore, there is a sound justification for relaxation or dilution of the maxim.

The doctrine of merger of judgments also offends this maxim. We know that the judgments of courts, lowest in the hierarchy, are quite often reversed by the first appellate courts. Similarly, the judgments of first appellate courts are reversed by the High Courts which, in turn, are reversed by the Supreme Court. Is it because the first appellate court or High Court is ignorant of the laws? If High Court is aware of the law then why does the Supreme Court reverse the judgment of the High Court? Can it be said that the High Court was ignorant of the laws? Sometimes even the apex court itself overrules its own decisions. Can it be then said that the top court was ignorant of the law while deciding the case at the first instance?

This assumes that the law in question has been properly promulgated, published in government gazettes and distributed amongst the public for generating awareness. The distribution may be in the form of its availability in newspapers or on TV or on the internet, or printed in volumes available for sale to the public at an affordable price.

Article 35A of our Constitution was unknown to everyone except for the last year or so. One can’t find the Article printed in any of the Bare Acts of the Constitution or in the latest textbooks written by famous authors. Article 35A was added by the Constitution (Application to J&K) Order, 1954, by President of India on May 14, 1954, exercising the powers conferred by Article 370(1) of the Constitution and with the concurrence of the government of J&K. The absence of this article in statute books is proof of its non-publicity and non-promulgation.

To obtain the binding force of a particular law, it must be applied to the men who are ruled by it. This is done by promulgating the law so that the people who are affected by it can acquire knowledge about it.

The Supreme Court of India has recently weakened the maxim that ignorance of law is no excuse in Drug Inspector vs Mani Maran (Cri. App. No. 1493 of 2018) decided by the Court on November 30, 2018. When the concerned drug inspector inspected the chemist shop of Mani Maran on December 17, 2008, it was found that the shop was running without a valid drug licence required under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940. Consequently, the shop was seized and a charge sheet under the Act was filed by the inspector.

The trial court convicted Maran and sentenced him to jail for one year with fines of Rs 5,000 and Rs 500 under different provisions of the Act.

The first appeal against the judgment was dismissed by the sessions court and thereafter the High Court acquitted the accused.

The accused in his arguments had admitted that he had purchased the retail shop from one Jayanti and had shifted the shop to the current location. The licence of the current shop expired on December 31, 2007. The accused also informed the court that there was no licence for the inspected premises and that he was not aware of the Act. Later on, he apologised for his mistake and requested that a licence be issued in his name.

The Supreme Court set aside the judgment of the High Court and found the accused guilty. But it reduced the sentence of the accused based on three factors. One, the offence was committed in 2008, about 10 years back. Two, the accused had no previous history of conviction. Three, the accused had stated that he was not aware that he had to obtain a licence for the sale of drugs.

Considering the facts and circumstances of the case, the Supreme Court while invoking the proviso to Section 27 (b)(ii) of the Act, reduced the jail sentence from one year to three months. But the fine of Rs 5,000 was upheld. However, nothing was said about the fine of Rs 500 imposed by the trial court. That too seems to be waived.

A close reading of the Supreme Court judgment reveals that the accused has got two reliefs. Firstly, his sentence of imprisonment was reduced to three months instead of one year and secondly, the fine of Rs 500 was also deemed waived partially in view of his ignorance of law.

The jurists have found good justifications in diluting the maxim in other countries as well. In England and Rome, the courts have refused to apply this doctrine blatantly so as to do complete justice and provide adequate relief whenever the courts considered it on the basis of justice, equity and good conscience.

Justice Maula in Martindale vs Falkner (1846) 2 CB 706 observed that “there is no presumption in this country that every person knows the law and it would be contrary to common sense and reasons if it were so.”

Justice Lush in R vs Tewkesbury (LR 3 Q. B. 629) observed that “there is no maxim which says that for all intents and purposes a person must be taken to know the legal consequences of his acts.”

Lord Atkin also found good justification in diluting this maxim in Evans vs Bartlam, (1937) AC 473 HL. His Lordship reacted in these words: “The fact is that there is no and never has been a presumption that everyone knows the law. There is the rule that ignorance of the law does not excuse, a maxim of very different scope and application.”

The exception carved out of the maxim, “ignorance of law is no excuse” proved to be a bliss in Maran’s case. We have to collectively doff our caps to the Supreme Court for taking a lead in this direction.

—Justice Bhanwar Singh is a former judge of the Allahabad High Court and Dr NK Bahl is Director, Judicial Training Academy, and Dean, DME School of Law, Noida

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