Legal Maxim

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Literal Meaning

Guilty act




Every crime involves two parts:

  1. The physical act of the crime which is actus reus i.e. a guilty act.
  2. The mental intent to do the crime which is mens rea i.e. a guilty mind.

To establish actus reus, a lawyer must prove that the accused party was responsible for an act prohibited by law. It is defined as a criminal act that describes a physical activity that harms another person or damages property. Anything from a physical assault or murder to the destruction of public property would be described as an actus reus. When a person commits a crime, there are physical acts that makeup elements of the crime. These physical acts, or a failure to act, constitute the actus reus of the crime. In order to charge a person with a crime, the actus reus of the crime must have occurred. If there is no actus reus, then no crime was committed. However, there is an exception to actus reus, when the criminal actions are involuntary. The onus depends on the prosecution to prove the defendant made a conscious and intentional movement. To constitute criminal behavior, the actus reus and the mens rea must occur simultaneously.


  1. A drunk driver who kills another is often charged with criminal negligent homicide.
  2. A shoots B with an intent to kill, but misses completely. However, later A accidentally runs over B, resulting in B’s death. A is not guilty of murder.

Case Laws

  1. Glanville Williams, in his book ‘Criminal Law’ General Part (2nd edition) on page 18, says: Actus reus includes, in the terminology here suggested not merely that whole objective situation that has to be proved by the prosecution, but also the absence of any ground of justification or excuse, whether such justification or excuse be stated in any statute creating the crime or imposed by the courts in accordance with general principles (though not including matters of excuse depending on the absence of mens rea).
  2. In Ashok Kumar Dixit vs State of U.P. And Anr., the Allahabad High Court held that “The maxim which has been accepted in this regard is actus non facit reus nisi mens sit rea. Mens rea denotes “mental” element in the definition of any crime, whereas the other elements of that crime have come to be known as the actus reus thereof. The phrase “actus reus” somebody has commented, is nonsensical. An act cannot be guilty, only human beings can be. But, despite this criticism, the phrase is constantly used and it is, in fact, a convenient way of distinguishing; the non-mental elements of a given crime from a mental element thereof.”
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