Premenstrual Stress Syndrome, A Valid Criminal Defense: Rajasthan High Court
Earlier this month, a two-judge bench of the Rajasthan High Court overturned a conviction of murder. While the verdict isn’t unusual, the ground for this acquittal is certainly unprecedented. It was Premenstrual Stress Syndrome or PMS.
Kumari Chandra, a 21-year-old woman, was accused of pushing three children into a well. While two of them were rescued, one boy drowned. The trial court convicted Chandra for offences of committing murder and attempting to commit murder under the Indian Penal Code.
This case was then appealed before the Rajasthan High Court where the lawyer for the accused argued that at the time of the incident, Chandra was suffering from premenstrual stress syndrome (commonly referred to as PMS). This, it was argued, led to Chandra becoming aggressive during certain periods of time in a month.
Under Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, no action which is taken by a person who is of unsound mind and is incapable of knowing that what he/she is doing is wrong, can be considered a crime.
According to the judgment, Chandra’s counsel relied on this provision for her defence and argued that PMS may cause some women to become violent and prone to committing crimes like assault and suicide. He relied on past instances of violent behaviour by Chandra and ‘madness’ to demonstrate that she was a victim of moments of mental unsoundness. This supported the defense that Chandra was “labouring under a defect of reason triggered by premenstrual stress syndrome”.
The High Court went on to accept Chandra’s defence and acquit her on the ground that she laboured under a defect of reason owing to a disease of the mind. Accordingly, she is not regarded under law as responsible for the act.
The court relied on evidence showcasing prior instances of ‘madness’ and that the accused had previously received treatment for this condition from three different doctors.
The judgment also cites and relies on several medical reports and journals to conclude that PMS could be a ground for unsound mind.
However, the Rajasthan High Court did observe that the aspect of law which equates mental symptoms of PMS with legal insanity has not developed in India.
Despite the lack of domestic jurisprudence, the accused nevertheless has the right to plead this defense.Rajasthan High Court
“If a person does something wrong, but is incapable of understanding that the act was wrong or illegal, it cannot be considered a crime, Majeed Memon, Criminal Lawyer, Supreme Court of India told BloombergQuint while agreeing with the high court decision. “The explanation for this in law is that the person lacks ‘mens rea’, which is the knowledge or intention of committing a crime. Mens rea is a crucial ingredient under the Indian Penal Code,” Memon added.
Criminal lawyer Misbaah Solkar told BloombergQuint she thought the judgment was flawed. Unfortunately, in the present case, the law has been stretched beyond the purview of Section 84 of the IPC only to justify a lady's aggression which is a defence of convenience, Solkar said.
I find this judgment to be arbitrary. It has stretched the definition of ‘insanity’ by placing reliance on a theory whereas ignoring the fact that theory needs corroborative evidence to back it.Misbaah Solkar, Criminal Lawyer, Bombay High Court
Solkar argues that the “illness” was not proved beyond reasonable doubt. There was no evidence brought on record to establish that the appellant was suffering from PMS at the time of the incident, she said. Typically, a certificate of insanity issued by a medical expert is produced to reduce the risk of a flaky defence, but no such medical evidence confirming the factual state of accused’s mind was produced in this case.
An improbable plea of insanity has been accepted without there being any concrete or corroborative material on record to substantiate the defence so raised.Misbaah Solkar, Criminal Lawyer, Bombay High Court
PMS-led temporary insanity has been used as defence in murder cases across the world and has sometimes succeeded in resulting in a reduced charge or punishment.
Memon pointed out that while the Rajasthan High Court decision is headline grabbing, it is unlikely to provide ground for other such cases to succeed in India.
It has to be conclusively established before the judges that the accused is of unsound mind, it cannot be taken as a pretext. And this must be determined on a case to case basis, since every case has different set of facts which have a bearing on the final decision of the court.Majeed Memon, Criminal Lawyer, Supreme Court of India