The Daily Telegraph

Don’t allow mentally ill criminals to escape justice, courts are told


‘There must be sufficient connection between the offender’s disorder and the offending behaviour’

CRIMINALS suffering from mental health problems should not escape justice if their condition is not to blame for their offence, the sentencing council has said.

In its first official guidance on mental health, the council urges judges and magistrate­s to assess each case on its merits because an offender’s mental “impairment or disorder may have no relevance to culpabilit­y”. The sentencing council said the courts could also override medical experts if they felt it necessary to punish the offenders or protect the public, but would have to give their reasons for doing so.

If they reduce a sentence, they will be expected to state why they judged the offender’s mental health was to blame for the crime. And they will have to show how the mental illness played a part in the offence.

It follows concerns from charities and victims’ groups that offenders’ mental health claims can be used to prevent justice being done. Julian Hendy, founder of the charity Hundredfam­ilies,

which campaigns for families affected by mental health murders, said: “A lot of cases I see are where murderers have diminished responsibi­lity, but they are treated as if they have no responsibi­lity.

“They are sent to hospital where they can typically be out in three to five years. Some families say, ‘Where is the justice in this?’

“I have also seen it go the other way where someone is clearly mentally unwell and the families don’t understand why they get jailed for murder. It is about the quality of the advocacy.”

The guidelines – the first to assist magistrate­s and judges in sentencing people with psychologi­cal disorders or problems – aim to ensure consistenc­y in judgments by courts.

Under the guidelines, the sentencing council said courts must first make an assessment of the culpabilit­y of the offender based on the relevant guidelines for the offence.

Only then should they consider whether culpabilit­y was reduced by reason of the impairment or disorder.

“Culpabilit­y will only be reduced if there is sufficient connection between the offender’s impairment or disorder and the offending behaviour,” the council said.

“A careful analysis of all the circumstan­ces of the case and all relevant materials is therefore required.”

The difficulti­es over assessing mental health are illustrate­d by the case of

Thomas Westwood, 47, who stabbed his mother to death and told police it was after a row over the milk in his tea.

He admitted manslaught­er on the grounds of diminished responsibi­lity and was made subject to an indefinite hospital order and sentenced to a 16year prison term. However, this was overturned on appeal and he was subjected to only the hospital order.

Mr Hendy said: “If the only criteria is treatment in hospital, then they can be out in three to five years. For families, it is not diminished responsibi­lity, it is extinguish­ed responsibi­lity.”

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