Why a sound understanding of Mental Health is key to defending all cases in the UK Criminal Justice System

Narita Bahra QC and Professor Keith Rix

Over the past decade homicide rates have fallen markedly in the UK but the relative contribution of mental disorder, particularly schizophrenia, has increased and substance misuse appears to be a factor driving this increase.[1] However, a significant proportion of offenders with mental disorder continue to be imprisoned and there has been a fall in the use of hospital order disposals. These findings from the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health have led to a call for improvements in the assessment of offenders and efforts to better inform the judges and juries which try such cases.[2]

It is therefore, imperative when defending in cases where mental disorder arises that an experienced defence team is assembled at the outset, to work together to identify what are often complex mental health issues which may interact with substance misuse. The outcome of early instruction will positively impact the trajectory the case takes within the criminal justice system.

Identify and instruct a forensic psychiatrist and/or forensic psychologists as soon as practicable. If issues of personality disorder, developmental disorder, such as autistic spectrum disorders or intellectual disability arise, then both experts should be instructed.

It is a fact that Cannabis potency has increased, resulting in the main constituent pyschoactive constituent (THC) of cannabis being linked to psychosis. Therefore, make it good practice to instruct a toxicologist to address the issues of intoxication and/or establish whether any psychosis resulted from voluntary intoxication.

No two cases will ever be the same and nor will the full extent of medical diagnosis and legal issues be immediately apparent, without expert assistance.

The key to mental condition defences is establishing at the cause of the individual’s disturbance and deterioration which led to the offending, the medical diagnosis and the extent of the mental disorder. This enables the defence team to prepare the defence, engage with the client, whilst still retaining radical empathy (a detachment that allows one to see the individuals’s point of view without losing sight of the crime and its impact on victims and society).

Garrick Law’s instruction of Professor Rix resulted in the prosecution offering no evidence against a youth who was charged with terrorism offences. The defence team’s identification at the outset and understanding of the mental health issues arising, resulted in all parties working together to achieve a just outcome. View Professor Rix’s website here.

[1] S. Flynn, S. Ibrahim, N. Kapur et al (2021) Mental disorder in people convicted of homicide: long-term national trends in rates and court outcome. British Journal of Psychiatry 218: 210-216
[2] Vide supra,