Legal Article

Understanding Mistake of Fact: A Closer Look at a Key Legal Concept

Shivendra Pratap Singh


High Court Lucknow


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Published on: 21 Aug, 2023


“Mistake of fact” is a legal term you may have heard in courtroom dramas or in the news, but its implications go beyond mere storytelling. It’s a concept with significant ramifications in both civil and criminal law. In this blog post, we’ll explore what “mistake of fact” means, when it can be invoked as a defense, and how it differs from other types of legal mistakes.

What is Mistake of Fact?

In legal parlance, a “mistake of fact” occurs when a party involved in a legal proceeding holds an erroneous belief about a fundamental fact. Unlike a “mistake of law,” where one misunderstands or is unaware of the law (which is generally not excusable), a mistake of fact can sometimes serve as a valid defense.

Examples of Mistake of Fact

Let’s look at some hypothetical scenarios to understand this better:

  • Criminal Law: Alice is charged with shoplifting after walking out of a store with a handbag she didn’t pay for. However, Alice thought the bag was her own, which looks remarkably similar to the one she is accused of stealing. Her mistake about the ownership of the bag may be considered a “mistake of fact.”
  • Contract Law: Bob agrees to buy a painting he believes is an original work by a famous artist. Both parties think it’s an original, but it later turns out to be a copy. This mutual error about a critical fact may be considered a bilateral “mistake of fact,” potentially leading to the contract being voided.

When Can It Be Used as a Defense?

In Criminal Law

The possibility of using “mistake of fact” as a defense in criminal cases varies by jurisdiction and the nature of the crime. For certain offenses, demonstrating a genuine mistake of fact can negate the “mens rea” or criminal intent, leading to an acquittal.

In Civil Law

In contract law, a mistake of fact can sometimes render a contract void or voidable. If a mutual mistake of fact occurs, both parties were wrong about a basic assumption, and the contract can typically be rescinded.

Mistake of Fact vs. Mistake of Law

The main distinction between a mistake of fact and a mistake of law is that the former can often serve as a defense, while the latter usually cannot. Ignorance of the law is generally not an excuse; however, ignorance of a fact, if proven genuine, may be.

Mistake of Fact vs. Other Types of Mistakes

  • Unilateral Mistake: This occurs when only one party is mistaken. It rarely serves as a defense unless the mistake is obvious enough that the other party should have recognized it.
  • Bilateral Mistake: Both parties are mistaken about the same fact. It can often lead to the contract being voided.
  • Material Mistake: A mistake is ‘material’ if it significantly affects the substance of a contract or case.


Understanding the concept of “mistake of fact” can be crucial for appreciating the nuances of both criminal and civil law. While it’s not a one-size-fits-all defense, its impact can be profound, affecting everything from contract agreements to criminal charges. As always, if you find yourself in a situation where this concept may be applicable, consulting a legal professional is strongly advised.

Disclaimer: This blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.


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