Lord chief justice pleads for action on mental health

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Nov 29, 2017
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Lord Burnett of Maldon said the justice system needed to take care of the needs of people with mental illnesses

Victoria Jones/PA

England’s most senior judge has called for action to help the “disproportionate” numbers of individuals with mental health problems in the criminal justice system.

Lord Burnett of Maldon said that it was important to put in place systems to deal with the needs of such people to ensure they had “equality before the law, proper access to justice and a fair trial – all fundamental aspects of the rule of law”.

He cited Ministry of Justice figures from 2015 that showed that approximately 29 per cent of individuals who were detained in police custody had some form of mental health condition and that more than 25 per cent of individuals resident in approved premises, previously known as bail hostels, were diagnosed with a psychiatric condition. The ministry also found that nearly 40 per cent of those serving community sentences had a mental health condition, while more than 90 per cent of the prison population has at least one psychiatric condition.

“These figures illustrate the statistically disproportionate involvement of individuals with mental health problems in the criminal justice system and the importance of putting in place systems that respond appropriately to the needs of such people,” said Lord Burnett.

The lord chief justice noted that there was another group with “real vulnerability”: the 7 per cent of the prison population with a learning disability, compared with 2 per cent of the general population.

“All in all, the incidence of vulnerable people within the criminal justice system is striking,” said the judge. “These figures demonstrate that all professionals in the criminal justice system must be sensitive to the needs of such vulnerable individuals to ensure equality before the law, proper access to justice and a fair trial, all fundamental aspects of the rule of law.

“That sensitivity will include an understanding of the particular problems faced by those with mental illness, neurological impairment or similar problems.”

Lord Burnett was speaking at the launch of a report by Justice, the human rights group, titled Mental Health and Fair Trial. The report’s recommendations, he said, deserved “serious consideration by all those involved in the effective operation of the criminal justice system”.

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