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Courts told not to spare the mentally ill

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

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” in its first official guidance on mental health. 

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 Hundred Families, 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?’”

Additionally he commented, “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 difficulties over assessing mental health were illustrated by the case of 47 year old Thomas Westwood, who stabbed his mother to death and told police it was after a row over the milk in his tea. Westwood admitted manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and was made subject to an indefinite hospital order and sentenced to a 16-year prison term. However, on appeal, this was overturned 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.”

Under the guidelines, the first to assist magistrates and judges in sentencing people with psychological disorders or problems, the sentencing council said that courts must firstly make assessment of the culpability of the offender based on the relevant guidelines for the offence. In an aim to ensure consistency in judgments by courts, only then should they consider whether culpability was reduced. “Culpability will only be reduced if there is sufficient connection between impairment or disorder and the offending behaviour,” the sentencing council said. 

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