Ignorance is Not An Excuse, How Correct?

By M. O. Idam, Esq.

“Ignorance is not an excuse” this phrase has been variously misapplied. Interestingly, this article is intended to shed light to the age long legal principle.

What does the phrase “Ignorance is not an excuse” really mean?

Clearly put, ignorance of the LAW is not an excuse. This is captured in the Latin phrase: “ignorantia juris non excusat” or “ignorantia legis neminem excusat” (“ignorance of law excuses no one”), this as a general rule, presupposes that a person who is ignorant of the provision of an existing law may not escape liability for breaking the law. Eg. If Uncle Bob and Brother Risky are unaware or pretend to be unaware that the anti-gay law passed by the Nigeria National Assembly prohibited “Sodomy” or “gay practice” they would not escape any punishment prescribed under the said law if they are caught in the act of coitus. Hence, the defence of ignorance, no matter how honest, may not avail them. Meanwhile, the Penal Code in Section 22 provides that Ignorance of the law does not afford any excuse for any act or omission which would otherwise constitute an offence, unless knowledge of the law by the offender is expressly declared to be an element of the offence. This is brought to light by the Supreme Court in the case of Ogbu v R (1959) NRLR 22at 24-25 (F.S.C), where one of the accused said during his trial that he did not know that it was contrary to law to pay a bribe as an inducement in order to be appointed as village headman and therefore tax collector. The trial judge accepted the story and acted on it to acquit him on the ground that the mental element that he should have paid the bribe “corruptly” was lacking.

On Appeal, the then Federal Supreme Court though had no power to convict the first accused, they remarked (Obiter)
“…We are not at present satisfied that the learned trial judge was right in law in acquitting Utachia Okobi (the 2nd Accused) on those findings but that if the matter ever failed to be decided by this court, we should require cogent argument to convince us on a charge involving doing some acts “Corruptly”. By the foregoing decision, the point is clearly made that ignorance of the Law is not an excuse. The principle is evolved by the notion that law when made, becomes a public document and knowledge of same is fixed on the public.

Conversely, ignorance of fact is an excuse (valid defence). “Ignorantia Facti Excusat” (ignorance of Fact is an excuse) this is strengthened by the provision of Section 25 of the Penal Code Law which provides that a person who does or omits to do an act under an honest and reasonable, but mistaken, belief in the existence of any state of things, is not criminally responsible for the act or omission to any greater extent than if the real state of things had been such as he believed to exist.

CONCLUSION

Being a lay-man (person not lettered in law) does not provide an excuse for criminal conduct. But acting mistakingly, following an honest but wrong impression, can suffice as justification.

M.O. Idam, Esq.
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