Specialist Mental Health Courts are a good idea which may never happen

17 September 2010 by

The Ministry of Justice is a step closer to introducing specialist mental health courts, which would work within the criminal justice system to identify and assess offenders with mental health issues, and ensure that offenders received appropriate intervention.

Similar courts have been widespread in the United States for around a decade. They are considered to be ‘problem-solving courts‘, which seek to address the underlying problems which contribute to criminal behaviour. There are around 2,500 such courts in the US, and they have been already been successful in the UK in addressing problems such as drug addiction and domestic violence.

The MoJ has published findings of a study into the feasibility of new Mental Health Courts (MHC) which, if implemented, would be set up in criminal courts throughout England. The aim is to reduce the perceived ‘revolving-door syndrome’, where people have repeat contact with the criminal justice system over the course of their lives.

Amongst other things, the MHC would provide a criminal  court with information on a defendant’s mental health needs to enable the court to effectively case manage the proceedings and offer sentencers credible alternatives to custody. Enhanced psychiatric support would also be provided.

The scheme was piloted in two magistrates courts during 2009, at a cost of £401,440. The pilot led to the screening of 4,000 defendants for mental health issues, and was considered a success, leading to “innovative multi-agency collaborations that addressed needs which probably would have gone unmet.” However, a wider implementation of MHCs “would require significant changes, supported at a national level, in the current patterns of multi-agency information sharing and data collection”.

The MHC scheme, which focuses on early intervention, was launched in July 2009 by the previous government in response to Lord Bradley’s review of people with mental health problems or learning disabilities in the criminal justice system.

The courts sound like a good, if expensive, innovation. Criminal lawyers are constantly faced by defendants with serious mental health issues who spend most of their lives moving between state institutions, usually prisons or hospitals. It is sensible to identify these people early and consider their treatment under the criminal law in the context of their mental health. Judges are often not qualified to deal properly with mental health issues, and this inevitably leads to miscarriages of justice.

But with the MoJ looking to skim £2bn from its 9bn budget, this scheme may ultimately be delayed or cancelled. This would be a shame, as Mental Health Courts may ultimately save money and reduce crime through earlier intervention and treatment of offenders, and could also reduce the prison population. Indeed, early reviews of similar courts in the US have found that participants have reduced their criminal activity. In the face of budget cuts, it would take an enlightened perspective to ensure that MHCs become a reality in criminal courts across England.

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