The concept of malicious intent is a legal one, used by the court system to determine the state of mind of the defendant. It is based on the concept of malice, which refers to an individual or group's intentions to do harm to another party. Malicious intent can be implied or it can be expressed and may have considerable impact on the final decision of a judge or jury when it comes to conviction and sentencing.
The concept of malicious intent exists because there are a number of crimes in which malice must be proven in order for the act to become a crime. This includes crimes of murder in some jurisdictions, where without the finding of malicious intent the charge would possibly be dropped or changed to a lesser crime of manslaughter. The concept is found most often in American court cases and was derived from the English system of common law.
In many cases, malicious intent comes in one of two forms: expressed intent or implied intent. Malice is considered expressed in a murder case, for instance, when a jury finds that an individual deliberately intended to take the life of another person. It would be implied if the expressed intention cannot be found but there exists no evidence that there was provocation for the murder to occur.
Malicious intent comes up frequently in cases involving libel, slander and general defamation. Starting with the 1964 Supreme Court case The New York Times v Sullivan, standards were altered has to how malicious intent figured in to such cases. The case involved the Times reporting on the civil rights campaign. It changed the way the media can present parody and information about public figures by elevating the standard.
After the case, public figures could only claim libel or slander if it could be proven that the publisher knew the information printed was false or that they went to print without concern with whether information was false or not. In many cases of defamation, it must also be proven that the speaker or publisher acted with malicious intent, meaning that the information was used in such a way as to cause harm to the plaintiff.
There are crimes in which malicious intent does not come into play. While many criminal offences are determined by proving malicious intent or "mens rea" (guilty mind), there are others in which simply committing the act is sufficient for a crime to have occurred in the eyes of the law. These strict liability crimes include statutory rape and many driving offences.
In civil law, malicious intent is often used not only to prove whether losses are due the plaintiff, but it can also play into punitive damages for the defendant. If a judge or jury finds that malicious intent and gross negligence occurred, it can influence the application and amount of punitive damages the defendant will have to pay. This is wholly separate from monetary damages due to the plaintiff such as lost wages or hospital bills.