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Mental Health Defences In Criminal Proceedings – Are You Guilty If You Suffer From A Mental Illness?

In order for someone to be guilty of a criminal offence, the prosecution must often prove a mental element. For example, in criminal damage cases the prosecution needs to prove that you either intended to damage property belonging to another person or that your recklessness caused the damage.

For this reason, if you have been charged with a criminal offence and you have a mental health condition or learning disability, you may be able to rely on one or more of the following defences:

1. Fitness to plead

Fitness to plead concerns whether a person can participate in a criminal trial at the time they are being prosecuted. Courts assume that someone charged with an offence is fit to plead, so it is for the defence to first raise it. For instance, if you are unable to understand the charges against you, you can’t give instructions to your lawyer or you don’t understand legal advice, it may be that you are not fit to plead and to stand trial.

In these cases it’s important that psychiatrist reports are obtained before you enter a plea in the Crown Court. The procedure is different and less straightforward in the Magistrates Court, but it’s still important it is raised at the earliest opportunity.

If you are found unfit to plead, representations should be made by your solicitor to the prosecution to discontinue the charges against you. Alternatively, there will be a trial of facts and if the court decides you have committed the alleged facts, you can only be sentenced to a hospital order, a supervision order or an absolute discharge (which means no sentence at all).

2. Insanity

Insanity concerns a person’s mental state at the time of the alleged offence. A psychiatrist is required to establish whether

  • You suffer from a defect of reason, and
  • The defect of reason must be caused by a disease of the mind, and
  • The defect of reason must be such that you did not know what you were doing or if you did know, you did not know the act was wrong.

If you are acquitted in the Magistrates’ Court on the grounds of insanity, but the court is satisfied you did the alleged acts, the court has the power to make a hospital order.

In the Crown Court, before a jury can return the special verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, the prosecution must first prove beyond reasonable doubt that you ‘did the act or made the omission’ charged. If the prosecution fails to prove this you are entitled to be acquitted whether or not you were insane at the time of the alleged offence.

If the jury return a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, a judge can sentence you to a hospital order, a supervision order, or an absolute discharge.

3. Automatism

An act is done in a state of automatism if it is done by the body without control by the mind, or if it is done by a person who is not conscious of what they are doing.

The act may be described as involuntary, but it’s not sufficient to say you simply can’t remember or could not resist the impulse to do it. For instance this defence can be used when offences are committed whilst sleep-walking.

It also does not apply if being out of control is self-induced, such as by drinking too much alcohol or taking illegal drugs, unless you are charged with an offence of specific intent, such as assault causing grievous bodily harm (GBH), where the intention is to cause GBH.

It is for the prosecution to disprove automatism beyond reasonable doubt. If they don’t you will be found not guilty as it operates as a complete defence to a criminal charge.

Expert reports and records of your medical history are crucial for this defence to be successful.

In conclusion, having a mental health condition or learning disability may not in itself be sufficient to prevent the CPS from charging you or for you to be acquitted. However, a number of legal routes should be explored to ensure you receive the fairest trial possible. You should raise any mental health concern to your solicitor early on in the proceedings in order for the above defences to be considered and for them to be as effective as possible.

If you have a case that has some of these elements please call one of our Crime team experts to discuss the options available to you. If you require legal advice, talk to us on 0330 822 3451 or request a call back at your convenience.