Background to the study
This legal treatise is intended to discover the various factors bearing on the topic of the Defence of Mistake in Nigerian Law As prejudges, a brief account of the historical background of the two major enactments, containing the bulk of substantive criminal Jaw in Nigeria is recited. The enactments are the Penal Code and the Criminal Code’’. The Codes are supplemented by other enactments as well as judicial decisions.
In many situations, a criminal defendant may wish to argue that he or she never intended to commit a crime and that the criminal act that occurred was a result of a mistake of facts regarding the circumstances of the crime or a misunderstanding concerning the law at the time. Such mistakes of fact can be applied to a variety of criminal activities, but mistakes of law are only rarely allowed as full defenses to criminal conduct.
In the defence of mistake, there exists the reasonable man’s test which is to the effect that the a reasonable man standing in life, but the defence of mistake goes further to add that the accused will be judged as liable on the facts as he believed them.
According to Glanville Williams, there is no objective test in respect of mistke as it need not be reasonable. It has been stated that an accused lacks legal fault if can prove that the lacked awareness if the fact bringing him within the definition of an offence an that the thought otherwise because he had made a mistake.
A mistake of fact is only a defense if it negates a material element of the crime. Every crime has elements that the government must prove in order to convict you. For example, one element of theft is that you must intend to deprive the owner of his/her property permanently. If your mistake of fact makes it such that this or some other element is not present, you have a defense and cannot be convicted.
The concept of mistake of fact can be very complicated. Here’s an example that may help. Suppose you are working in a library and you brought a laptop with you. When you leave, you take someone else’s laptop, honestly believing it is yours. You have made a mistake of fact: you thought the laptop was yours, but it isn’t. This mistake negates the intent to the “deprive permanently” element of theft. This mistake also is an honest, reasonable mistake. So, you have a defense to theft charges in this example.
A mistake of law is where you are mistaken or ignorant about the law. For example, if you believe that you don’t have to come to a complete stop at a “Stop” sign when there are no other cars at the intersection, you have made a mistake of law. Whether there are cars or not, you must come to a complete stop. In almost every case, you will not be allowed to argue that you didn’t know or misunderstood the law. That is, it won’t be a defense.