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Laws Of Being: Understanding Persons In The Legal Landscape

The word "person" is derived from the Latin word "persona," which means "a mask worn by actors while playing different roles." The word "persona" initially referred to the masks worn by Roman actors, but it has since evolved to encompass a broader meaning, encompassing living beings or other entities capable of having rights and duties.

Throughout history, various legal scholars have offered their own definitions of the term "person."

Here are a few notable examples:
  • Sir John Salmond: "A person is any being whom the law regards as capable of having rights and duties, whether a human being or not."
  • Friedrich Savigny: "A person is defined as the subject or bearer of right."
  • John Chipman Gray: "A person is an entity to which rights and duties may be attributed."

In India, the Indian Penal Code, 1860 provides its own definition of "person" in Section 11. According to it "person" includes any company, association, or body of persons, whether incorporated or not.

Classification of Persons:

Persons can be broadly classified into two categories:
  • Natural Persons:
    • A natural person is an individual living human being. In legal terms, a natural person is someone who possesses their own legal personality. To be considered a natural person in law, a human being must fulfil two conditions:
      1. They must be a living human being.
      2. They must be recognized by the state as a person.
    • However, it is important to note that for an individual to be fully recognized as a natural person, they must not be a slave under the absolute control of their master or otherwise considered civilly dead.
  • Legal Persons:
    • A legal person, also known as an artificial or juristic person, is a real or imaginary entity that the law considers capable of having rights and duties. Legal persons are often referred to as "fictitious" or "moral" persons. Examples of legal persons include:
      1. Corporations
      2. Companies
      3. Associations
      4. Institutions
      5. Societies
In the case of Pratibha & Ors vs Manager, Canara Bank�, the Supreme Court of India ruled that a trust is not a juristic person because the term "person" as defined in Section 2(1)(m) of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, includes:
  1. A firm, whether registered or not
  2. A Hindu undivided family
  3. A cooperative society
  4. Every other association of persons, whether registered or not under the Societies Registration Act, 1950

Unborn Persons:

  • An unborn child in the mother's womb is, by legal fiction, treated as already born and considered a person for various purposes, including:
    1. A gift may be made to a child in the womb.
    2. Ownership may be vested in a child in the womb.
    3. In Hindu law, partition requires a share to be allotted to a child in the womb.
    4. Under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), injury to a child in the womb is a punishable offense (Section 312, 313, 316).
  • However, the legal status of an unborn child is not absolute. For instance, an unborn child generally cannot be the beneficiary of a will unless they are born alive. Additionally, the right to life of an unborn child is often balanced against the mother's right to bodily autonomy, particularly in the context of abortion laws.

Dead Persons:

  • In certain circumstances, the legal status of dead persons extends beyond their physical death. For instance:
    1. Any imputation against a deceased person that harms the reputation of that person if living and is intended to hurt the feelings of their family and other near relatives is considered an offense of defamation (Section 499 IPC).
    2. Even a homeless person found dead on the road has the right to a decent burial or cremation according to their religious beliefs, as ruled in Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan vs Union of India�
  • Moreover, the estates of deceased persons may continue to exist and be subject to legal proceedings. For example, a will can be contested or a deceased person's debts may need to be settled.


Animals are not recognized as legal persons under the law. They are considered merely things and have no natural or legal rights. This means that animals cannot sue or be sued, and they cannot own property. They can also be subjected to cruelty and exploitation without legal recourse.

However, there is a growing movement to recognize the sentience and inherent value of animals. Some jurisdictions have enacted laws that protect animals from cruelty and provide them with certain basic rights, such as the right to food, water, and shelter.

Legal Status of Idols and Mosque:
  • Idols: Idols are judicially recognized as persons, and their legal status is akin to that of a minor. The priest, or Pujari, acts as a guardian to look after the interests of the idol or deity. In the case of Devkinandan vs Murlidhar�, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the property of a Hindu temple or an idol vests in the idol itself, while its possession and management vest in the 'shebait' as the manager of the estate.
  • Mosques: The legal status of mosques as persons is not entirely clear. In the case of Maula Bux vs Hafizuddin⁴, the High Court of Lahore held that a mosque is a Juristic person capable of being sued.
"Guru Granth Sahib" is also a legal person being the central point of worship in a Gurudwara.

In the intricate dance of legal definitions, personhood emerges as a dynamic concept, embracing the unborn, contemplating the rights of the deceased, and navigating the unique roles of animals, idols, and mosques. This legal exploration reveals that being a "person" is not a fixed label but an ongoing dialogue shaped by societal norms and legal interpretations. As we ponder the complexities, it becomes clear that personhood is not a destination but a journey, inviting continuous contemplation and adaptation in the ever-evolving landscape of human understanding and the law.

  1. Civil Appeal No. 3561 of 2008 (Date of Judgement: 07/03/2017)
  2. AIR (2002) SC 554
  3. AIR (1957) SC 133
  4. AIR (1925) Lah 372
Written By Deepak Jagrat, University College Of Law, MLSU, Udaipur

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