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The courts and mental health

Explains what may happen if you are charged with committing a crime, what happens when you to go court, and how your mental health is taken into account.

When will my trial be held?

Quite often, especially in the Crown Court, you will not be given a fixed date for trial. Instead, your case will be put into what is known as a 'warned list'. This means that you will be given a range of dates (usually one or two weeks), and your trial could start on any day during this period.

You, or your solicitor, will only be told when your trial will start on the afternoon before. It is very important to phone your solicitor at about 4pm every day of the warned list, so you know when you have to go to court.

What will happen at the trial?

If you case goes to trial, the magistrates (at the Magistrates' Court) or the jury (at the Crown Court) will decide whether you are guilty or not.

Here's an outline of what will happen:

  • The prosecution will try to prove that you are guilty.
  • You, through your lawyer if you have one, will try to argue that you might be innocent.
  • You will probably have to give evidence at your trial by answering questions.
  • There may also be other witnesses.

Can I use my mental health as a defence?

Mental health problems cannot generally be used as a defence, though they may affect your sentence if you are found guilty.

But there are some exceptions:

  • The court may decide that you're unfit to plead.
  • The court may find you not guilty if you were legally insane at the time you committed the offence. If this happens, the judge has to decide whether you still have mental health problems. If they decide you do, they can send you to hospital, or make a supervision order (which means that you will have to get support or treatment). If you no longer have mental health problems, they can to give you an absolute discharge.
  • If you are charged with murder and can show that you had an 'abnormality of the mind' when you committed the crime, the court will convict you of manslaughter instead. This could mean less punishment. This is called 'diminished responsibility'.

What will the court take into account when deciding?

The court has a lot of things to think about when choosing the most appropriate outcome, including:

  • the seriousness of the offence
  • any previous convictions
  • your mental health.

The court may also take other things into account such as:

  • guidance from the Sentencing Council and the Court of Appeal
  • a pre-sentence report or a report on your mental health.

What happens if I'm found guilty?

If you are found guilty, the courts have a number options:

  • Absolute discharge. This means that you won't get any punishment.
  • Conditional discharge. This means that you won't get any punishment as long as you don't commit any further offences for a certain period (usually 1–2 years).
  • Pay a fine. You may be asked to pay money.
  • Community sentence. This means that you won't have to go to prison but will have some conditions in the community. This could be unpaid work, living at a particular place or receiving mental health treatment if you agree. You could also get help to deal with drink or drug problems. It is important to stick to the conditions of this type of sentence, because if you don't, the court can order you to come back and be re-sentenced, which could mean you are sent to prison.
  • Prison sentence. If the court chooses to give you a prison sentence, it will also need to decide the type of sentence and how long it should be. The court can give you what is called a 'suspended prison sentence', which means that you won't go to prison as long as you don't commit any further offences for a certain period (usually 1–2 years).
  • Hospital order under section 37 of the Mental Health Act. The Crown Court can also add restrictions under section 41, known as a section 37/41.
  • Guardianship order. This means that a guardian, usually the local authority, will be able to supervise you in the community and make you live at a particular place.

Can I appeal against my conviction or sentence?

You may be able to appeal to a higher court if you disagree with your sentence or conviction. This can be a complicated process, so we recommend you get legal advice on this.

This information was published in July 2018.

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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