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Prisoners with mental health difficulties: A Success Story

This relates to a case that Emma McClure worked on for a long time before she joined SL5 Legal.

It is a positive outcome and shows the challenges of supporting and robustly representing those with serious mental health difficulties within the criminal justice system.

Emma’s client received a life sentence with a tariff of less than three years. This was for non-fatal violence. When Emma became involved in the case, her client was around ten years post tariff. He had been unsuccessful at previous parole reviews due to violent and chaotic behaviour in custody.

The client had been transferred to the high secure hospital estate. It became apparent that they had a significant mental illness and were not able to cope within the prison system. Once they were receiving appropriate care and medication, their presentation completely changed and they were able to manage themselves well.

As a prisoner transferred to hospital under s47/49 of the Mental Health Act, they would need to first satisfy a Mental Health Tribunal that they were well enough to be discharged, and then a Parole Board that they were safe to be released.

During a Care Planning Approach (CPA) meeting, Emma picked up on comments that were made by professionals that the original offence was likely motivated by her client’s mental illness.

Following this, she sought to establish why her client had not received a hospital order in the first place given how well they responded to treatment for mental illness and the view that this illness was likely longstanding.

This involved a significant amount of detective work given the age of the conviction.

Given the client’s mental health difficulties and the passage of time, they struggled to remember details from around the time of sentence that would assist, such as who had represented them at the time or which court they were sentenced at.

Significant investigatory efforts turned up that the client had pleaded guilty to the offence, no psychiatric evidence had been available at the time of sentence as the client had refused to be assessed and had in fact stated that they were pleased to receive a life sentence as it would help keep them out of trouble.

It was the view of the hospital professionals that the client had been so paranoid as a result of their illness that this was likely the cause of the refusal to engage in assessments at the time.

As no assessments had been completed, it had not been open to the sentencing judge to realistically consider a mental health disposal at that time.

In order to be successful in appeal, the client needed ‘fresh’ psychiatric evidence from their current clinical team and further independent psychiatric assessment as required by established case law.

This appeal was also around 14 years out of time, and so an application also had to be made for permission to appeal so far out of time. This involved meticulous recording of what work was done, and when, in order to justify why an appeal was being submitted at such a late stage.

This involved years of work gathering and assessing relevant documents as still existed and seeking ‘fresh’ evidence to support the application whilst continuing to advise and assist a vulnerable client.

After all of this, the final judgement of the Court of Appeal was recently handed down, agreeing to the extension of time and subsequently accepting the appeal and quashing the life sentence. It was replaced with a hospital order.

The Court were able to use the evidence gathered to hold that there was compelling evidence that medication and the right mental health support made this client’s risk minimal and that his violence had likely been motivated by his illness.

Had this been known at the time of sentence, he would likely have received a hospital order.

This is a very positive outcome as it means the client will not have to face the real risk of a return to prison and will not have to live with the significant burden of a life licence on ultimate discharge from hospital. They will still be subject to conditions on discharge but the focus will very much be on their mental health and keeping them well.

This case demonstrates the importance of having a representative with specialist knowledge to help those with serious mental health difficulties navigate the complexities of the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, as with many areas of law, legal aid funding is extremely limited in this area but we can consider cases in limited circumstances.


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