Public encouraged to have their say on the prosecution of people with mental health issues

|News, Violent crime

The region’s top prosecutor is appealing to people from across the North East to have their say on how people who suffer from mental health issues are treated by the criminal justice system.

Speaking after the sentencing of Ethan Mountain for manslaughter on Friday, Andrew Penhale, Chief Crown Prosecutor for CPS North East, said that the case highlighted how important it was that prosecutors worked from clear, informed guidance when making decisions about defendants with mental health issues. 

Ethan (19) suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and told police how voices in his head had compelled him to carry out a random attack on Joan Hoggett (62) in Sunderland last year. He was sentenced to an indefinite hospital order, after two psychiatrists agreed that he had been of diminished responsibility due to his mental disorder. 

Andrew said: “I would first like to praise the dignity shown by the family of Joan Hogget in the immediate wake of Ethan Mountain’s plea to the charge of manslaughter. Despite their own grief, they have recognised the significant role that Ethan’s mental illness played in his actions and have publicly encouraged those suffering from mental health issues to seek appropriate support.

“Cases involving mental illness are complex and difficult, as a single disorder can affect different people in different ways. As prosecutors we always need to make decisions based on the unique facts of a given case, but it is vital that we are also guided in such decisions by the expertise of those working across the mental health sector.

“Earlier this month the Crown Prosecution Service launched a public consultation on updated legal guidance about how we deal with defendants with mental health conditions and disorders. The guidance has been developed over many months in collaboration with mental health experts, to better reflect our growing understanding of different mental conditions.”

“I would encourage anyone with a perspective on mental health, from members of the public to mental health professionals, to engage with this consultation and help to shape this guidance before it is finalised later this year.”

The revised guidance is designed to assist decision-making throughout the life of a criminal case, from the initial decision to prosecute, through to fitness to plead and sentencing. It has been developed following extensive collaboration with experts to understand changes in the mental health landscape such as diversion services and community concerns about the impact on the criminal justice system.

A random sample of nearly 400 cases across England and Wales found that one in five involved a defendant, victim or witness with a mental health issue.

Key information included in the draft guidance includes:

  • information for prosecutors about different types of mental health conditions, and their clinical presentation;
  • consideration of the admissibility of confessions where a suspect has a mental health issue;
  • potential legal defences a defendant may have for offences, including reasonable belief in self-defence for violent offences, and automatism, where a person loses control of their body;
  • information about potential community treatments or non-criminal justice diversions for some low-level defendants with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression, as well as autistic spectrum disorders and learning disabilities; and
  • the use of reasonable adjustments to support effective participation by defendants with mental health issues, for example, allowing them to use special measures, such as giving evidence from behind a screen to help alleviate anxiety.

The CPS has separate guidance to support victims and witnesses with mental health issues through the criminal justice system.

The consultation runs until 4 June 2019. The final version of the guidance will be published later this year.

Notes to editors

In 2017 a manual data exercise was undertaken across the CPS in which 30 random finalised cases were analysed; a total of 390 cases. They were made up of 260 Magistrates’ Court Cases, 65 Crown Court cases and 65 RASSO cases. The significant finding was that in at least 1 in 5 cases there was a defendant, victim or witness with a mental health issue, with almost an equal split between defendants and victims and witnesses.

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