Crime victims with mental distress - unreliable witnesses?
Posted Monday 12 April 2010
Do you have a similar story? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.
As Mind’s lead on our Another assault campaign, I continue to be outraged when I hear how victims and witnesses of crime are denied access to justice because of their mental health problems.
One particularly shocking story is that of FB*, an assault victim who was completely failed by the criminal justice system due to stigma surrounding his diagnosis of schizophrenia. This is his story – and Mind is sure there are sadly many more like it…
On Boxing Day 2005, FB was seriously assaulted and had part of his ear bitten off. FB reported the crime to the police and later identified his assailant at an identity parade. His assailant was arrested and interviewed by the police, when he verified FB’s account of the time and place of the incident and the other people who were present, but denied biting off FB’s ear.
His assailant was charged with the serious offence, but FB never saw his case tried in a criminal court. Before the trial, defence solicitors got hold of FB’s medical records, to argue that FB’s psychiatric diagnosis of schizophrenia cast doubt on his reliability as a prosecution witness.
As a result of this evidence, prosecutors instructed FB’s doctor to provide a report on his condition and the likelihood it would affect his perception and recollection of events.
But the questions asked by prosecutors were of a general nature, with no attempt to explore FB’s individual experience of schizophrenia, whether FB was capable of providing reliable evidence, or whether there was any medical reason to think that FB’s identification of his assailant might suggest he was hallucinating or demonstrating paranoid beliefs. No attempt was made to discuss the report further with the psychiatrist, although he was due to attend the trial, or with FB and his solicitors.
On the day of the trial, the prosecution dropped the case on the basis of the doctor’s report, deciding that FB was an unreliable witness so the prosecution could offer no evidence to support the charges against the assailant. FB was denied justice because of his mental health condition.
On appeal, the Crown Prosecution Service was eventually found by the High Court to be in breach of the Human Rights Act, for failing to uphold the state’s duty to protect people from inhuman or degrading treatment – such as assault – by not pursuing the case.
The High Court judge in the appeal case criticised the prosecutors involved for basing decisions on an unfounded stereotyping of FB as someone who was not to be regarded as credible on any matter because of his history of mental health problems.
Mind is concerned that stories like these are all too common. We have been awarded funding from the Law Society to develop a mental health toolkit for prosecutors, to tackle stigma and help them to make better decisions about cases involving victims or witnesses with mental distress.
As part of our research we need more evidence about people’s experiences of taking a criminal case to court – if you have a similar story to FB’s, please post it below – we may contact you afterwards to ask for more information.
Amy Whitelock, Policy and Campaigns Officer
*Name has been changed.
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