The Yorkshire Ripper and Section 50 MHA

Is Peter SUTCLIFFE the most infamous personality in British criminal history? – certainly in recent criminal history; and every time something happens in his ongoing detention, it attracts significant attention. There have, this morning, been headlines in print, audio and visual media concerning a recommendation from the psychiatrist(s) in charge of his ongoing care at Broadmoor Hospital – they have suggested that ‘The Yorkshire Ripper‘ no longer requires inpatient mental health care which you may notice is slightly different to the headlines we’ve seen! … the Guardian reported that he is ‘no longer mentally ill’ and this is quite a different, and incorrect, point. (The BBC made the same mistake but have now corrected their headline!)

We’ve also seen and heard queries this morning about the legalities that are in play, with questions about what happens next as well as the odd query around whether he will now be released. So here is what happened in this quite exceptional case, from which we should draw almost nothing about other criminal offences by people with a mental illness and about which we should draw absolutely nothing about people who are detained in hospital under the MHA having committed no offence whatsoever. In that sense, this post is really about inappropriately sitigmatising people with mental health conditions who have not broken the law —


Here’s what actually happened in Mr SUTCLIFFE’s case –

  • A criminal trial for 13 murders and various attempted murders in 1981 at the Old Bailey.
  • This followed the biggest ‘manhunt’ in UK police history led by West Yorkshire Police.
  • Psychiatric evidence was offered that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the offences.
  • An offer to plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility was rejected by the judge.
  • This was despite the prosecution and defence agreeing that could be in the public interest and that the legal criteria for it were satisfied.
  • The jury was invited by the judge to consider the medical evidence alongside all the other evidence secured by the police.
  • The jury found Peter SUTCLIFFE guilty on all charges.
  • The judge imposed the only sentence allowed by law: life imprisonment.
  • He was detained in prison in 1981 and remained there until 1984.
  • It was then suggested that Mr SUTCLIFFE needed inpatient psychiatric care and met the threshold for detention under the Mental Health Act.
  • He was therefore transferred from prison to hospital – under section 47 of the Mental Health Act.
  • Because of the serious offences and the ongoing risk to the public of serious harm, a restriction order was imposed upon this transfer under s49 of the Act.
  • The restriction order means that Doctors in charge of a patients hospital care cannot discharge that patient, grant them leave from hospital or transfer them to another unit or back to prison without permission from the Secretary of State for Justice.
  • Peter SUTCLIFFE brought legal action in 2010 concerning his future detention after the Secretary of State indicated he should serve a ‘whole life tariff’.
  • The High Court ruled such a decision was lawful in Mr SUTCLIFFE’s case and the Court of Appeal upheld this decision in 2011.
  • In December 2015, it is reported that inpatient mental health care was no longer required.
  • Note: they are not necessarily saying he is no longer suffering any kind of mental illness – merely that he is well enough to leave hospital.
  • It now rests with the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael GOVE, to determine whether Peter SUTCLIFFE should be ‘remitted’ to prison under section 50 of the Mental Health Act to serve the remainder of his prison sentence.


Where a serving or remanded prisoner is transferred to hospital, they may or may not return to it. If a person’s original prison sentence expires during the time they were transferred as a patient in hospital, they become a ‘notional s37 patient‘ and any restriction order that did apply on their transfer from custody ceases to have effect. This means that once the DRs are satisfied that discharge from hospital is appropriate, they may take that decision without reference to the Secretary of State – so if Mr SUTCLIFFE had been convited of lesser offences and sentenced to, let’s say 10yrs in prison, he would have ended his sentence in 1991. If DRs still felt inpatient care was required – and they obviously did think this in 1991 – he would have remained in hospital beyond his criminal sentence. Once the DRs were satisfied the Mental Health Act should no longer apply, he would have been discharged.

Murder convictions make things more complicated because the sentence for murder is always ‘life’ with a recommendation of a minimum term. Imagine Mr SUTCLIFFE had been sentenced to life with a recommendation of 35yrs in prison; it would now be open to Michael GOVE to directly authorise his release because it is (just) over 35yrs since his conviction. However, there is no obligation to release someone at the minimum recommended term, it becomes a matter for the Parole Board and in this case, a previous Secretary of State, subsequently backed by the courts, has indicated that ‘life means life’. Discharge from hospital therefore means a return to prison, if the Secretary of State agrees. It is known as being ‘remitted’ – under section 50 of the Mental Health Act.

If this is what the Secretary decides to do, Peter SUTCLIFFE will serve his sentence as a convicted prisoner.

Peter SUTCLIFFE is quite an exceptional individual, as is Ian BRADY who ranks along side him in terms of imfamy and notiriety in British criminal history. Both multiple murderers are currently in the hospital system having originally been convicted by a criminal court for murders and what is always unhelpful in the debates about such rare and individual cases is extrapolation of the issues to others. Even SUTCLIFFE and BRADY are not comparable – Ian BRADY attempted to argue in 2013 that he should be returned to the prison system and the High Court ruled against him. Such is the complexity, that these cases tell us nothing at all even about other individuals who are in the secure mental health system after a criminal act. Many people in the secure system were found unfit to plead or found not guilty by reason of insanity and given a restricted hospital order. Some others were fully convicted of an offence, as SUTCLIFFE and BRADY were, but still given a restricted hospital order: Christopher HAUGHTEN in 2011 was such an example.

Professor Jill PEAY remarked that working at the interface of mental health and criminal is amongst the most complex work that professionals from either set of professions will do, so simplistic conflation of complex factors like mental health, criminal liability, violence and penology was always going to fall flat on its face. Even worse, is thinking that any of this has particular relevance to the tens of thousands of people each year who undergo inpatient mental health care having committed no criminal offence whatsoever. It subliminally reinforces notions of crime and violence to the many, when it was only ever relevant to a relative few.

IMG_0053IMG_0052Winner of the President’s Medal from
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.

2 thoughts on “The Yorkshire Ripper and Section 50 MHA

  1. I’ve been sectioned under a 37 to 41 for setting fire to a psychiatric hospital. I was detained under the mental health act and kept in hospital for three years despite being well after a year and a half. I’m not sure what thetime I would have served in prison been but apparently I got out quick. It didn’t feel like it though. Sutcliff should be sent to prison

  2. “Even worse, is thinking that any of this has particular relevance to the tens of thousands of people each year who undergo inpatient mental health care having committed no criminal offence whatsoever. It subliminally reinforces notions of crime and violence to the many, when it was only ever relevant to a relative few.”

    Maybe it’s things like this contribute to the prevalent attitude (at least outside of the police) that mental health incidents are should routinely be treated as police matter, as opposed to medical emergencies/incidents?

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