UPDATE 12/03 – West Midlands Police have been given the authority to charge Phillip SIMELANE with murder.
The tragic events of this Thursday have reverberated around the country: a young woman with her life ahead of her, killed in an apparently random attack on a city bus in the early morning build up to rush hour. No-one could fail to be moved by the impact this will have on those who knew and loved Christina Edkins and I want to add my condolences to those expressed by West Midlands Police and thousands of others. There are no words.
On Friday evening, the police announced that the suspect who was arrested just over 24hrs before had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. This has prompted various reactions in the press and on social media – not all of them in light of what is actually occurring here. So this post seeks to explain how and why such decisions are reached when any investigation involves suspects who may be suffering from mental health problems; and it seeks to explain the implications of someone being sectioned and what may happen next.
Before I do so, I want to point out that I am not involved in this investigation and have no more access to information concerning it than anyone who has followed the details released to the media. This outline is not specific to the particular case: it hopes to outline how custody officers and investigating officers approach the decisions that the law requires them to take.
POLICE CUSTODY PROCEDURES
The police must always attempt to establish whether anyone in custody may have a history of mental or other health problems and whether this has any bearing on their detention in custody or upon the investigation – this is a legal requirement. If need be, a police surgeon can call upon trained mental health professionals from the NHS to advise further and this includes whether or not it may be appropriate for the suspect to be detained in hospital for assessment or treatment under the Mental Health Act 1983. If someone is arrested for any offence, their mental health is directly relevant to the potential for them to be held responsible for their actions – which means we have understand their mental health issues to properly investigate.
Whilst assessments in custody are undertaken to reach these decisions, the person being detained will be deemed unfit for interview – this is really important to how legal decisions are made. People suffering from mental health issues are known to be especially ‘suggestible” – this means prone to making false confessions or false denials when being questioned by experienced detectives. Police interviews can also seriously impact upon an individual’s health and make issues worse: both could have profound legal implications should the investigation lead to a trial at a later time. There are various safeguards in place for people in custody who are deemed ‘vulnerable’ and someone with mental health problems is covered by these.
So in some investigations where a suspect needs admission to hospital under the Mental Health Act, the lack of being able to question them means there is insufficient evidence to charge them with an offence. Even if there is enough evidence, it can still be necessary to delay any charge decision to establish whether or not it “is in the public interest” and to ensure the courts can take their decisions in light of any health issues.
MENTAL HEALTH AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE
“Diversion” is the word used when a person in contact with the criminal justice system is brought into contact with the mental health system. It does not always mean someone is moved from the criminal justice system to the mental health system. It means the two systems start to operate alongside each other and this is done for several reasons –
- With more minor offences, it may be that the whole response to someone’s minor offending is best addressed by just ensuring they receive appropriate health care.
- With more serious offences, it will be important to fully understand the nature and extent of someone’s mental health problems, because it will be relevant later if that person is charged with any offence.
- Someone’s mental ill-health can affect how a trial is conducted and will be relevant to sentencing if the person is found guilty – any court will need to make decisions about “fitness to plead” or “fitness to stand trial” and psychiatric assessment is key to this.
- Any jury that may be involved in a trial may have to reach decisions about “insanity” or “diminished responsibility” and psychiatric assessment will be key to this, too.
So where any offender is ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act and admitted to hospital, there are various things to say –
- Someone being ‘sectioned’ means one of two things – either, the person requires assessment and treatment for suspected mental disorder; OR they need treatment for known mental disorder.
- This does NOT mean that the investigation is over – West Midlands Police policy states that where suspects are diverted, the investigating officers will not end a criminal investigation until after the hospital have assessed the patient and the officers have liaised with them to understand the legal implications of that assessment.
- This does not mean the suspect has a known mental health history – the fact that someone was ‘sectioned’ does not mean that they are previously known to mental health services OR that they have previously been ‘sectioned’ before.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW
Whilst there are cases every year where suspects who have been ‘sectioned’ after arrest do not face formal prosecution, this is always for comparatively minor offences like shoplifting, criminal damage or assault. Where more serious offences have been alleged suspects who are ‘sectioned’ are assessed and treated in hospital until they can later be questioned by the police. After questioning, and dependent upon the evidence in the case supplemented by the medical information, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can then take their normal decision about whether to prosecute the person concerned.
This is crucial – this is no different than for any other suspect who is ill or seriously ill when arrested by the police. If someone had a serious heart problem or a broken leg that required an operation, the criminal justice system would take a slight pause to ensure that treatment and care, before then proceeding as normal based upon the evidence. The process is no different where offenders are suspected to have mental health problems, which can be equally serious.
And where things happen in this order, it has various advantages for the justice process:
- If a person had appeared in court whilst still ‘unfit’, they would not be able to enter a plea and the trial would have been delayed anyway – remember the case of Nicola Edgington who was sentenced last week? This trial was delayed for many months because she was unfit to appear before the court.
- After someone’s first appearance, a court has no power to remand a person directly to hospital for treatment and assessment, so understanding the nature of someone’s ill-health and ensuring proper treatment would be delayed compared to the approach of ‘diversion’ before charge.
- By the time of any appearance in court, much more is known about the offender’s mental health history and this allows the court process to proceed far more efficiently, if after assessment and treatment the evidence is there to support charges being brought.
Various reactions to the news that the suspect had been ‘sectioned’ were understandable – this incident has shocked many of us who have understood the details of it. Obviously a key role for the police is to bring to justice those who commit offences and temporarily diverting an offender for a serious offence so that the investigators can better understand the impact of someone’s mental health on the incident, is a part of this investigation process – it may also mean that if a suspect is eventually questioned once ‘fit’, more evidence is secured for any trial that may occur.
To those who have argued in response to the decision that it appears to be all about safeguarding a suspect and not prioritising the victim, I would say this: let the police gather as much evidence and information as they can to take the best decision possible. That will help ensure that justice is done.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.