Legal Defences in Criminal Law: General Exceptions

Last updated on May 24, 2024

Lawyer defending accused in court

When an accused person is charged with committing a crime, the prosecution bears the legal burden of proving the elements of the charged offence beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, the prosecution has to prove that the accused person had in fact committed the crime.

However, in certain cases, the accused person may seek to rely on a defence, either to dispute the elements of the offence or as a justification/excuse for committing the offence in question. In such cases, the accused person bears the legal burden of proving the defence on the balance of probabilities. Nevertheless, whether and what types of legal defences would apply depend on various factors.

To shed light on the above, this article will cover the following topics:

What is a Criminal Defence?

Broadly speaking, criminal defences refer to any claims raised by accused persons seeking to be acquitted of the charges levied (i.e. to be found not guilty of those criminal charges), to have their existing charges reduced to ones of lesser severity, or to be acquitted on the grounds of the defence.

The Penal Code contains some of these defences, which can be classified into the following two categories:

  1. General Exceptions: These defences are contained in Part IV of the Penal Code and apply not only to offences within the Penal Code, but also to offences outside the Code (e.g. offences under the Protection from Harassment Act or under the Companies Act), unless the statute specifically excludes it. Successfully raising the defences that come under the General Exceptions can result in a complete acquittal for accused persons.
  2. Special Exceptions: These defences are found in section 300 of the Penal Code and apply only to the offence of murder. Even if successfully invoked, the defences that come under the Special Exceptions only work as a partial defence, leading to a reduction of the charge of murder to one of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. You can refer to our other article for a brief overview of the differences between murder and culpable homicide not amounting to murder, which also covers the three ways in which one can be found guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. One key distinction is that the maximum punishment if one is convicted of murder is the death penalty, whereas culpable homicide attracts an imprisonment term (life imprisonment, imprisonment of up to 20 years, or imprisonment of up to 15 years, depending on which of the 3 ways one is found guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder), alongside possible caning and a fine.

This article only covers the “general exceptions” legal defences. Please refer to our other article for information on the “special exceptions” legal defences.

Do note that it is not always easy to raise a criminal defence, as there are a number of requirements/conditions that must be met as prescribed by the law, which will be discussed below. Furthermore, as mentioned in the introduction, the accused person bears the legal burden of proving the defence on a balance of probabilities. This differs from many other jurisdictions, where the accused person only bears the evidentiary burden of producing some evidence to support the defence, whereupon the prosecution bears the legal burden of disproving the defence beyond a reasonable doubt. As such, it has been observed that criminal defences are less frequently raised in practice in Singapore, compared to these other jurisdictions.

What are the Types of Legal Defences Under the Category of “General Exceptions”?

Unsoundness of mind

The defence of unsoundness of mind can be employed as a legal defence to any criminal charge. However, if the defence of unsoundness of mind is successfully invoked, the accused person is not simply acquitted of the charges against him but is instead, acquitted on the grounds of unsoundness of mind. The effect of this is that, unlike an acquittal under other legal defences, the accused person is not automatically entitled to his freedom. Rather, the accused person is likely to be sent to undergo a therapeutic regime, which can include an indefinite period of detention.

In 2015, a man struck and strangled his father to death at home. He was charged with murder, but was subsequently acquitted of the capital charge, as the court found that he was suffering a schizophrenic relapse and “experiencing severe psychotic symptoms” at the time of the incident. However, for the safety of himself, his family and society, the court ordered him to be confined in a psychiatric institution, prison or other suitable place for an indefinite period of time at the President’s discretion.

Accused persons who seek to invoke the defence of unsoundness of mind must prove the following elements:

  1. That at the time of the alleged offence, they were suffering from unsoundness of mind. There is no precise definition of the term “unsoundness of mind”. However, the term “unsoundness of mind” refers to legal insanity and not medical insanity. Hence, while diagnoses and evidence by medical experts are important to assist the court in determining whether the accused person is suffering legal insanity, they are not determinative. The key part of this element is that the accused person must have been suffering from unsoundness of mind at the time of the alleged offence. Hence, in the example above, it was crucial that the court made the finding that the accused person was experiencing a psychotic episode at the time of the incident.
  2. Such unsoundness of mind negated either their cognitive capacity to know the nature of the act or that what they were doing was wrong or negated their ability to control their actions. In the above example, the accused person’s psychotic episode prevented him from controlling his actions. Other examples include instances where an accused person afflicted by a mental condition stabs another, thinking that he is stabbing a demon. Another instance is where an accused person, by virtue of his mental condition, is prone to periods of blackouts during which he has no control over his actions, and during one such period, commits a crime.


Intoxication operates as a complete defence to a criminal charge in two situations:

  1. Involuntary intoxication. Accused persons claiming involuntary intoxication must prove all the following:
    • That the intoxication was caused without their knowledge or against their will. An example of this could be if their drink was spiked. On the other hand, if the accused person’s intoxication was caused knowingly, then the defence of involuntary intoxication would not be available. An example of this latter situation is where an accused person, who knows that he gets drunk quite easily, drinks large amounts of alcohol for “liquid courage” before committing an offence while intoxicated.
    • That the intoxication was so severe that they did not know what they were doing or that the alleged criminal conduct was wrong.
  2. Intoxication negating intention, knowledge, or belief. Accused persons claiming such intoxication must prove the following:
    • That the surrounding circumstances show that they were so intoxicated that they lacked the ability to form the intention, knowledge or belief required for the offence. For example, an accused person who was involved in a fight with another club-goer after a heavy night of drinking may raise the defence of intoxication against the charge of voluntarily causing hurt to another person, on the basis that his intoxicated state prevented him from forming the specific intention of causing hurt to the latter, or from knowing that he was likely to cause hurt to that person.


Raising the legal defence of duress entails accused persons claiming that they had been ordered/threatened by another person to commit the offence in question. The accused person seeking to be excused for committing an offence is doing so on the basis that he was faced with only two choices at the material time – committing the offence demanded by the threatener, or having the threat carried out.

Hence, in the circumstances, the accused person did not really have a free choice as to whether to commit the offence. Common phrases that describe such a situation include being caught between a rock and a hard place or having to choose the lesser of two evils. If the defence of duress is successfully raised, then the accused person will be found not guilty of the offence charged.

An example of the defence of duress possibly being raised is in a situation where an accused person is charged with drug trafficking, but he claims that he only committed the offence because someone had threatened to kill his fiancée unless he delivered an unidentified package to the specified drop-off point.

The elements that must be proven to invoke the legal defence of duress are as follows:

  1. The harm threatened must have been of instant death. A threat of impending harm, or a threat of serious but non-fatal bodily harm will not be sufficient. In the example above, the harm threatened is one of instant death, and thus the first element is satisfied.
  2. The threat must have been directed at the accused person or any other person. Using the above example, the threat is directed at the accused person’s fiancée, so this element would also be satisfied.
  3. The accused person must have reasonably believed that the threat will be carried out. Referring to the above scenario, if for example the accused person had been trying to contact his fiancée for the entire morning, but was not able to reach her, and was sent a video from an unknown number of his fiancée tied up and held at gunpoint, then it would be reasonable for the accused person to believe that the threat of killing his fiancée will be carried out if he did not follow the instructions provided.
  4. The accused person has a duty to escape and accordingly must not have missed a reasonable opportunity to escape. This factor is slightly trickier in the context of another person being threatened, as the accused person would not have had a duty to escape per se. However, if for example, the accused person could identify from the video that his fiancée was being held at their apartment, the accused person may be under a duty to inform the authorities as soon as possible so that they can intervene.
  5. The accused person must not have allowed himself to become subject to the circumstances which exposed him to the threat, e.g. by voluntarily associating with the threatener.

Private defence

Accused persons who raise the legal defence of private defence are essentially admitting to the fault element of the offence, but claiming that they should nevertheless be acquitted because they were defending themselves against an unlawful attack. In common parlance, this is also typically referred to as “self-defence”.

An example of this is where an accused person was being robbed at knifepoint and fought back. During the altercation, the accused person caused the assailant to be seriously injured. The accused person would argue that he was merely doing so in private defence.

Several conditions must be proven for accused persons to successfully raise the legal defence of private defence:

  1. An offence affecting the human body or property was being committed against the accused or another person. In the example above, the accused person was being robbed at knifepoint, and thus there was an offence that was being committed against him.
  2. The accused person must not have had a reasonable opportunity to have recourse to public authorities in the circumstances. Using the example above, if the accused person managed to escape from the situation, and ran into a patrolling police car, then anything that is done to the attacker by the accused person thereafter would not have been in private defence, as the accused person had a reasonable opportunity to have recourse to public authorities.
  3. The accused person reasonably believed that he faced a danger that compelled defensive action. With the above example, the accused person would have believed that he faced the danger of being stabbed or slashed, which compelled him to defend himself.
  4. The accused person’s exercise of the right of defence was commensurate with the continuation of the danger. Hence, if the danger has passed, and defence has ceased to be necessary, then the accused person’s exercise of the right of defence would no longer be justified. An example of when the danger would be considered to have passed is if the accused person managed to disarm the assailant by pushing him to the ground. However, instead of running away, the accused person decided to stab the assailant. In such a situation the accused person would unlikely be able to successfully rely on the defence of private defence.
  5. The force used by the accused person was reasonably necessary for the purposes of defence. This requires an examination of the circumstances, to determine whether the accused person inflicted more harm to the attacker than was necessary to overcome the danger. If so, then the accused person’s exercise of the right of defence is unjustified.

– –

In conclusion, there are many defences available to accused persons. However, whether the defences are appropriate for the circumstances will ultimately depend on the particular offence that accused persons have been charged with, as well as whether the elements of the defences can be satisfied on the face of the circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime.

If you or your loved ones have been charged with committing a criminal offence, and wish to consider your legal options, in particular, whether and which legal defences to raise, you are strongly encouraged to seek further legal advice from a criminal defence lawyer. A criminal defence lawyer will be able to advise you on which defences are available and applicable in your case, as well as represent you in the matter if necessary.

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