Late last night, it was announced by Greater Manchester Police that a twenty-five year old man arrested in connection with the New Year’s Eve stabbings at Victoria station had been ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act and that the investigation was ongoing. Within five minutes, literally, social media was full of comment – much of it ill-informed – about what this means for the overall incident and how it would be much cheaper just to shoot this man. Bearing in mind that the decision to ‘section’ a suspect who has (in the view of three senior professionals, including at least one senior doctor) acute, identified healthcare needs, that seemed a touch harsh to me. We may learn in due course that someone is fully criminally responsible for the Manchester Victoria attacks; we may learn that someone was so ill that they genuinely did not know what they were doing. Given that we don’t truly yet know, the extra-judicial killing of the mentally vulnerable strikes me as a tad premature, even if you are a supporter of it in principle.
This post, therefore, merely aims to point you towards a clearer understanding of what this does actually does mean in reality – nothing in particular. This sort of thing is not new and it could still yet go any number of ways including a full finding of guilt leading to imprisonment, it may lead to mental health-specific outcomes like an insanity verdict or a finding that the man is unfit to plead and stand trial. Many suspects every year are arrested for crimes of all types and subsequently ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act 1983. For some – it does represent the end of the criminal investigation, most usually because they were originally arrested for very minor crimes clearly connected to their mental health like the man I always recall who’d shoplifed a few pounds worth of food purely because he was just really hungry whilst living rough, in a state of crisis for three days in a Birmingham park, for example. He was extremely ill, hadn’t hurt anyone and just needed some care, some food and a bit of warmth. No further action taken, criminally speaking – he just went to hospital.
However, if the one difference had been that he had stabbed a supermarket security guard in the process, that may well have worked out very differently for him – such an offence would not just be about him and his health, it would be about the need to protect the public from serious risk. For those who have allegedly offended in a more serious way, being ‘sectioned’ is the start of a parallel process which runs alongside the criminal investigation until it is decided one of those processes needs to end. They may run in parallel all the way to a criminal trial which has to consider the evidence for the offence as well as the mental health of the defendant, for which there are specific legal provisions in criminal courts to determine issues such as fitness to plead, insanity or how mental illness may merely mitigate a finding of guilt. More on that below, but first things first: how do the police and CPS decide whether to prosecute a mentally unwell suspect?
STUFF TO READ
I’ve covered this sort of thing before with other high-profile incidents. Rather than repeat all of that, I’d just like to sign-post those of you who want to read more about this to a few other posts I’ve written in the past which explain what is going on here and why. As Greater Manchester Police themselves have said, the investigation in to this matter is ongoing. Someone being ‘sectioned’ means nothing at all, yet and this will no doubt unfold in coming days and weeks, in some way, shape or form.
You may remember the tragic death in Christina Edkins in Birmingham in March 2013. For exactly similar reasons and in very similar circumstances, I wrote a post which explained things and where they might go, roughly 24hrs after the suspect in that case was sectioned. Six months later, I wrote a post explaining various things relating to his trial. Here they both are –
- So what happens now? – written 24hrs after the suspect was ‘sectioned’.
- So what does that mean? – written after the suspect was charged and had pleaded guilty at court.
If you want more specifics on investigative the potential issues for a court, see the second post which contains links to more material on things like fitness to plead, insanity and other court and post-court processes for mentally disordered offenders. The one difference between the two cases is that in Manchester, thankfully, no-one died. This means that if there is a trial in the future, there can be no discussion about ‘diminished responsibility’. This is a partial-defence available only to someone who has been charged with murder. However, this point is not always understood so even knowing that may prove useful.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENS NOW?
Greater Manchester Police detectives keep investigating, the National Health Service in Manchester start assessing and treating the suspect and the two organisations run their parallel processes, communicating closely until such time as one of their processes ends OR they are combined by prosecution for an offence. Remember, the job of the police and prosecutors here is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to charge anyone with an offence and whether it is in the public interest to do so. All those more complex questions about fitness to plead and insanity are matters for the court, if and when any prosecution brings a defendant before a judge. For now, this means nothing.
My final point is addressed to those who were calling for extra-judicial killing at this early point: a man arrested for an offence has been thought to have acute psychiatric issues after an assessment by the NHS and an independent Approved Mental Health Professional. His needs were obviously thought so serious that hospitalisation was required for a period of assessment and it may mean a delay of sorts to the investigation, but it doesn’t stop the investigation, I’m at pains to point out. And this is key: this is no different to any other suspect who needed acute healthcare after arrest. You can imagine the drink-driver who crashed his car in to a wall suffering serious injuries, the burglar who suffered leg injuries after being detained by a police dog, the armed criminal who is shot by the police. Being a suspect in a criminal offence does not remove your need or your right to urgent and acute healthcare of any type, including mental health.
Let the police and NHS do their jobs and you will learn more in the future as it all unfolds.
Winner of the President’s Medal,
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award
All opinions expressed are my own – they do not represent the views of any organisation.
(c) Michael Brown, 2019
I try to keep this blog up to date, but inevitably over time, amendments to the law as well as court rulings and other findings from inquests and complaints processes mean it is difficult to ensure all the articles and pages remain current. Please ensure you check all legal issues in particular and take appropriate professional advice where necessary.
Government legislation website – http://www.legislation.gov.uk