Mistakes of Law and Mistakes of Fact

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What are Mistakes of Law and Mistakes of Fact ?

A mistake of fact takes place when a person does any act but misunderstood some fact that neutralises the reasons of the crime. A mistake of fact as a protection applies to various crimes. If the criminal accussion can prove that he does the act due to a mistake of fact or misunderstood some fact that neutralises an element of the crime. 

In contrast, the mistake of law refers to a misunderstanding about whether an action is criminal or not. An in-depth study is required in this topic as this matter is very important in the study of law.

Free Consent in Business Law

For a valid contract, the consent of the parties must be genuine and without any ambiguity. The principle known as ‘consensus-ad-idem’ is followed, meaning that the parties entering into a contract must mean the same thing in the same sense. The parties in the contract must have a mutual understanding in regards to the subject matter of the contract. Mere consent is not enough for a contract to be enforceable. The consent given must be free and voluntary, it should be free from coercion, undue influence, fraud, misrepresentation or mistake. When the consent which has been affected by these elements, it creates doubt whether the consent given was free and voluntary.


Free Consent Examples

  1. A, at a gunpoint, makes B agree to sell his house to A for Rs. 50,000. Here, B's consent has been obtained by coercion and therefore, it shall not be regarded as free consent.

  2. X threatens to kill Y if he refuses to sell his scooter for Rs. 1,000 to X. Y sells his scooter to B and receives the payments. Here Y's consent was not free and if Y decides to avoid the contract, he will have to return Rs. 1,000 which he had received from X.

  3. A lady gifted all her property to her spiritual guru so that she may secure blessings to her soul in the next world. Here, the spiritual guru is in a position to dominate the will of his disciple and by using his strong position obtained an unfair advantage over her. This was held that the consent of the lady was obtained by undue influence and therefore not free consent.


Mistake of Fact

The mistake of fact refers to a mistaken understanding by someone as to the facts of a situation. The mistake (of understanding the fact) results in a person who commits an illegal act. The mistake of fact is a defence to a crime where the mistaken belief, if it were true, would neglect a mental state which is an element of the crime. A mistake of fact might mean that a person has committed the physical element of an offence. As they were under a mistake of fact, they never formed the required mens rea, and hence will escape the liability for offences that require mens rea.

In contract law, a mistake of fact may be raised as a defence by the party who is seeking to avoid liability under the contract. Also, a mistake of fact can be used to cancel, rescind or reform a contract. A mistake of fact can affect a contract only if the mistaken fact was important to the agreement.


Mistake of Fact Example

Let us assume that a bookseller has agreed to sell a copy of a Virginia Woolf novel that was signed by the late author. Further, the buyer is precisely interested in buying the book as that contains the Woolf's signature. The seller selling the book knows that with this authentic signature, the book fetches a very high price. Later it is discovered that the signature was actually forged and neither the seller nor the buyer knew about the forgery, this would be a mistake of fact, and the buyer does have the right to return the book and get her money back. This example talks about the mutual mistake or a material fact that is mistaken by both the parties.


Honest and Reasonable Mistake

An honest and reasonable mistake of fact will actually prevent an offender who is being convicted of a strict liability offence. This is where the accused has believed that certain facts existed at the time of the offence. If true, it would mean they were not committing an offence. This defence of honest and reasonable mistake of fact is quite traditionally a defence of common law. These kinds of offences do not require the prosecution to prove that an accused person intended to commit the crime is an honest and reasonable mistake.

In this section, we saw what are the necessities to form a valid contract and in which cases there will be a defence.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What are the Cases in Which there is No Free Consent?

Ans. In the case of a mistake, the contract is void. However, in cases like coercion, Undue influence, fraud and misrepresentation, the contract is void of free consent, consent was not free at the option of the party.

2. Why is Free Consent Essential in a Contract?

Ans. Free Consent is an essential part of a valid contract. To make an agreement legit, the contract should be signed by the parties without any coercion, undue influence, fraud or misrepresentation.

3. What is Mens Rea?

Ans. Mens rea is the mental element of a person's intention to commit a crime, this is a knowledge that one's action or lack of action would instigate a crime to be committed. This is a necessary element of many crimes.

4. What are the Different Viewpoints on the Concepts of Mistake of Law and Mistake of Fact?

Ans: The different viewpoints on the concepts of mistake of law and mistake of fact are:

  • The Equivalence View

  • The Liberal View

  • The Moderate View