September 30, 2022

How a series “Victoria” depicts the background of “M’Naghten Rules”?

M’Naghten become a standard test for criminal liability in relation to mentally disordered defendants in common law jurisdictions ever since, with some minor adjustments. In India, Indian Penal Code also embodied this rule in Section 84 while giving relaxation to insane people from criminal liability.

The TV Series “Victoria” created by Masterpiece PBS gives a perfect glimpse into the life and reign of Queen Victoria of England and I think it is one of the best cinematic adaptions of Queen Victoria’s reign and personal life. This series taught me many histories and one of them is the background of “Mghnautan Rules”.

Read also-Histories which I learnt from Victoria

In season 2 of “Victoria”, Robert Peel was the prime minister of Queen Victoria. And series depicted his private secretary Drummond’s relationship with another gay Lord Alfred.

Queen Victoria and circumstances forced Robert peel to repeal corn laws which were creating barriers to free trade. Despite too much trouble and protest by his own party members (Tories), Robert peel got success to repeal corn. But while coming from the parliament, a person fired a shot on peel but Drummond pushed him aside and that bullet killed him.

Lord Drummond and Robert peel in “Victoria”

TV series “Victoria” just summarized the death of Drummond with feelings but actually, he died when a person Daniel M’Naghten took a pistol and shot Edward Drummond under the impression that Drummond was peel, and wounded him fatally. Drummond died five days later (20th June 1843-25th June 1843) and M’Naghten was charged with his murder.

When this murder case[1] went to trial, his family put the defence of his insanity, witnesses were called to prove that at the time of committing the act, he was not sound state of mind. The medical evidence was in substance that persons of otherwise sound mind might be affected by morbid delusions.

This verdict, and the question of the nature and extent of the unsoundness of mind which would excuse the commission of a felony of this sort, having been made the subject of debate in the House of Lords, it was determined to take the opinion of the Judges on the law governing such cases. The judges attended the House of Lords, and the following hypothetical questions were asked from the judges on insanity laws-

  1.  What is the law respecting alleged crimes committed by persons afflicted with insane delusion, in respect of one or more particular subjects or persons: as, for instance, where at the time of the commission of the alleged crime, the accused knew he was acting contrary to law, but did the act complained of with a view, under the influence of insane delusion, of redressing or revenging some supposed grievance or injury, or of producing some supposed public benefit?
  • What are the proper questions to be submitted to the jury, when a person alleged to be afflicted with insane delusion respecting one or more particular subjects or persons, is charged with the commission of a crime (murder, for example), and insanity is set up as a defence?
  • In what terms ought the question to be left to the jury, as to the prisoner’s state of mind at the time when the act was committed?
  • If a person under an insane delusion, as to existing facts, commits an offence in consequence thereof, is he thereby excused? [2]

M’Naghten Rules

The principles expounded by this panel have come to be known as the “M’Naghten Rules“. These rules are as follows-

  1. Notwithstanding a party accused did an act, which was in itself criminal, under the influence of insane delusion, with a view of redressing or revenging some supposed grievance or injury, or of producing some public benefit, he is nevertheless punishable if he knew at the time that he was acting contrary to law.
  • That if the accused was conscious that the act was one which he ought not to do; and if the act was at the same time contrary to law, he is punishable. In all cases of this kind the jurors ought to be told that every man is presumed to be sane, and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his crimes, until the contrary be proved to their satisfaction: and that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that at the time of commiting the act the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or as not to know that what he was doing was wrong.
  • That a party labouring under a partial delusion must be considered in the same situation, as to responsibility, as if the facts, in respect to which the delusion exists, were real.
  • That where an accused person is supposed to be insane, a medical man, who has been present in Court and heard the evidence, may be asked, as a matter of science, whether the facts stated by the witnesses, supposing them to be true, show a state of mind incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong.[3]

Thus, M’Naghten become a standard test for criminal liability in relation to mentally disordered defendants in common law jurisdictions ever since, with some minor adjustments. In India, Indian Penal Code also embodied this rule in Section 84 while giving relaxation to insane people from criminal liability.


[1] M’Naghten’s Case [1843] All ER Rep 229

[2] https://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/1843/J16.html

[3] https://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/1843/J16.html

The author of this article is Arshi Hayat Gangohi, She is a lawyer, blogger at AbabeelFolks, and writes on law, cinema, literature, and culture.