Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Mental health and Fair Trial

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Since 2015 the Human Rights group JUSTICE has produced a remarkable series of reports on different aspects of the justice system. (I declare an interest; I am a member of the JUSTICE Council.)

Their report Mental Health and Fair Trial was published in November 2017. in it, it outlined the precarious position vulnerable people may be in when confronted by the criminal justice system.

Since the JUSTICE reports are written by specialist sub-groups with specific knowledge of the issues raised, the recommendations they propose are aimed at dealing with practical challenges faced by those working in criminal justice. The available evidence suggests that people in the criminal justice system are far more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general population.

The report argues that ‘argues that from first contact with the police through to sentence, there remain fundamental problems with the English justice system’s response to mental health. Left unaddressed the fair trial rights of many defendants may be undermined.’

The report makes over 50 recommendations for change grouped into the following broad categories.

1. The investigative stage – Mental health experts, not police officers, should be identifying people with vulnerability as a result of mental ill health or learning disability and those identified should have access to proper support.
2. Decision as to charge or prosecution – A specialist prosecutor should be appointed for each Crown Prosecution Service area who must make the charging decision in cases of vulnerability, assisted by up-to-date guidance and assessments.
3. Pre-trial and trial hearings – Trial processes can be bewildering and incomprehensible for those with mental ill health and learning disabilities. Magistrates’ courts, youth courts and the Crown Court should have a dedicated mental health judge with enhanced case management powers and responsibility for a case progression protocol.
4. Legal capacity tests – A capacity based test of fitness to plead and fitness to stand trial, placed on a statutory footing should be available in all courts and the “insanity” defence should be amended to a defence of ‘not criminally responsible by reason of a recognised medical condition’.
5. Disposal and sentencing – A Sentencing Guideline on mental health and vulnerability should be created and a broader range of disposals made available to sentencers to meet the needs of the case.

Although the report was launched with strong support from the Lord Chief Justice, it is not known whether the Government or other agencies mentioned in the report have actively taken forward these recommendations. But they deserve careful consideration.

The report is available at https://justice.org.uk/mental-health-fair-trial/

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Written by lwtmp

July 11, 2018 at 2:01 pm

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