Actus Reus: Origin, Meaning, Application and Important Case Laws

Actus Reus: Origin, Meaning, Application and Important Case Laws

The Latin term, ‘Actus Reus’ is related to the commission of an act or an illegal omission of an act which one was legally bound to do. This article explains the meaning and origin of the term, with its application coupled with illustrations and case law.

Origin and Meaning

Actus Reus is a legal maxim of Latin origin. Actus in Latin means ‘act’ and reus means ‘guilty’ and hence, the term actus reus means ‘guilty act’.


Crime constitutes of two essential elements, actus reus and mens rea. Actus reus means the guilty act and mens rea refers to the guilty mind or intention to perform the act. Actus Reus refers to the physical act of commission or omission. In brief, an overt act or illegal omission in pursuance of the guilty intention is actus reus.


Characteristics of Actus Reus are as follows:

  1. Voluntary:
    • The overt act or omission has to be voluntary (must be done of its own free will). If the actus reus is the result of an involuntary (beyond the person’s control or automatism) or forced act, then it may fall under the General Exceptions given under Chapter IV of Indian Penal Code, 1860.
    • An example of an involuntary act would be any reflex action or even epilepsy. In order to determine whether an act or omission was voluntary or not, the circumstances (injury caused, means employed, etc.) of the case are being looked into.
  2. Act must be prohibited by law:
    • For an act to constitute criminal liability, it must be prohibited by law. If this was not the case, every normal action undertaken would also constitute to be a criminal action.
    • For example, using a knife to cut vegetables will not amount to actus reus however, taking the same knife to stab a person in the heart would amount to actus reus.
  3. Act must cause harm:
    • The act of the accused should result or attempt to result, in some harm to the social interests of another and accordingly punishment will be granted.
    • It must be noted that the harm caused or attempted to be caused must be the direct consequence of the act.


  1. A is an infant. B is the mother of A. B intentionally omits to feed the infant which leads to the death of A. B can be charged with the offence of negligence and/ or murder if the intention of B can be proved in the court of law. [Omission of an act]
  2. A robbed B’s house of all the jewels and ornaments. A will be liable for theft under the Indian Penal Code. [Commission of an act]

Important Case Laws

In the case of Om Prakash v. State of Punjab[1] where a man deliberately did not give his wife food, the Court held him to be guilty of attempting to kill his wife by his illegal omission (as he had a legal duty to provide food for his wife).

In the case of Hill v. Baxter[2], an example of an involuntary act was given. Someone losing control of a car because they are attacked by a swarm of bees comes under an involuntary act.


[1] 1961 AIR 1782.

[2] [1958] 1 All ER 193.

  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination

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