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.

Your stories

Who would believe me?

Posted on 07/10/2013

“I didn’t even know what sectioning meant.”

Dan talks about his experience of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act after experiencing psychosis.

Dan Miller
Posted on 04/06/2019

Terms you need to know



Absolute discharge

This is where you are discharged from hospital without any conditions you have to follow. It is different from a conditional discharge.


This means you are free from your criminal charge.


This is where you are released from custody, possibly with certain conditions attached. For example, you may have to return to the police station or to go to court at a certain time.

Community sentence

This is a type of sentence where you won't have to go to prison but you might have some conditions in the community. This might be:

  • unpaid work
  • living at a particular place, or
  • receiving mental health treatment.

Conditional discharge

This is where you are discharged from hospital but will have to follow some conditions, such as living at a particular place or meeting healthcare professionals. You can only be conditionally discharged if you are on section 37/41.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal deals with appeals from the Crown Court.

Crown Court

This is one of the two types of criminal courts. It is the higher of the two courts, above the Magistrates' Court.

Diminished responsibility

If you are charged with murder, but can show that your mental health condition made you commit the crime, the court may convict you of manslaughter instead. This is called diminished responsibility.

Either-way offences

These include theft and handling stolen goods. Cases are heard in either the Magistrates' Court or Crown Court.

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.


A hearing is a meeting at the court in front of the judge, where decisions are made about your case.

Hospital managers (also known as Mental Health Act Managers)

These are an independent team of people in a hospital who make sure that the requirements of the Mental Health Act are properly applied. They have certain important responsibilities and can make decisions related to your detention – for example, they can hear your application to be discharged from your section and decide whether or not to discharge you.

Indictable offences

These include very serious offences, like rape, manslaughter and murder. Cases are heard in the Crown Court.

Insanity (defence)

If you committed a crime but your mental health condition meant that you did not know what you are doing, or that what you are doing was wrong, you may be able to use the defence of 'insanity'. But even if you are successful with this defence, you will not necessarily be acquitted.

Judicial review

This is a type of court procedure where a judge reviews a public authority’s decision, policy, practice, act or failure to act, and decides whether it is lawful or not.

If it is not lawful, the court may cancel the decision or action (‘quash’ it), and require the public authority to reconsider it, lawfully. The court can order the authority to do or not do something.

Legal aid

Legal aid can help meet the costs of legal advice, family mediation and representation in a court or tribunal. It is given to people who cannot otherwise afford legal representation.

You’ll usually need to show that:

  • your case is eligible for legal aid
  • the problem is serious
  • you can’t afford to pay for legal costs.

However, legal advice at a police station is free and not dependent on your finances.

Magistrates' Court

This is one of the two types of criminal courts. It is the lower of the two courts, below the Crown Court.

Mental disorder

When the Mental Health Act talks about someone with mental health problems and whether or not they should be sectioned, it often uses the term 'mental disorder'. The Act says that this can include “any disorder or disability of mind”.

Mental disorder can include:

  • any mental health problem normally diagnosed in psychiatry
  • certain learning disabilities.

Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA)

This is a law that applies to England and Wales which allows people to be detained in hospital (sectioned) if they have a mental illness and need treatment. You can only be kept in hospital if certain conditions are met.

See our pages on the Mental Health Act for more information.

Mental Health Tribunal (MHT)

This is a special court that deals with cases relating to the Mental Health Act 1983. The Tribunal can make decisions about:

  • whether you can be discharged from your section
  • suitable aftercare.

The Tribunal can also make recommendations about:

  • hospital leave
  • transfer to another hospital
  • guardianship, and
  • community treatment orders (CTOs).

Where you see a reference to the Mental Health Tribunal in this information, it means:

  • First Tier Tribunal (Mental Health), if you live in England, or
  • Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales, if you live in Wales.

Nearest relative

This is a family member who has certain responsibilities and powers if you are detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act. These include the right to information and to discharge in some situations. The law sets out a list to decide who will be the nearest relative. This can sometimes be changed.

See our pages on the nearest relative for more information.


If you are charged with a crime and have to go to court, you will be asked whether or not you did the crime. This is known as "entering a plea".


This means that you will go to prison until you go to court to have your case considered. Sometimes you can be remanded to hospital instead of prison.

Responsible clinician

This is the approved clinician in charge of your care and treatment while you are sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

All responsible clinicians must be approved clinicians. They do not have to be a doctor, but in practice many of them are.


Being 'sectioned' means that you are kept in hospital under the Mental Health Act. There are different types of sections, each with different rules to keep you in hospital. The length of time that you can be kept in hospital depends on which section you are detained under.

Section 17 leave

This is where your responsible clinician gives you permission to leave the ward or the hospital for short periods. They may ask you to keep to certain conditions, such as returning within a certain time.

Section 117 aftercare

Some people who have been kept in hospital under the Mental Health Act can get free help and support after they leave hospital. The law that gives this right is section 117 of the Mental Health Act, and it is often referred to as 'section 117 aftercare'.

For more information see our pages on leaving hospital.

Summary offences

These include motor offences and minor assaults. Cases are heard in the Magistrates' Court.


If a court gives you an indeterminate sentence (one without a fixed time limit), or a life sentence, it will set a 'tariff' or 'minimum term'. This is the earliest date at which you could be released. The exception is where the court gives a 'whole life sentence' which doesn't have a tariff.

Trial of the facts

If the court decides that you are unfit to plead, it will have a trial of the facts instead of a full trial. The court's sentencing powers are different if you only have a trial of the facts.

Unfit to plead

A court may decide you're unfit to plead if it seems that you're not able to understand the court process or instruct a lawyer to represent you.

Warned list

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, and your trial could start on any day during this period.


This information was published in July 2018. We will revise it in 2020.

Mental Health A-Z

Information and advice on a huge range of mental health topics

> Read our A-Z


Helping you to better understand and support people with mental health problems

> Find out more

Special offers

Check out our promotional offers on print and digital booklets, for a limited time only

> Visit our shop today