A new SGC Definitive Guideline providing a new matrix for courts when sentencing offenders with mental disorder
August 27, 2020
A new SGC Definitive Guideline providing a new matrix for courts when sentencing offenders with mental disorders, developmental disorders or neurological impairments has been published. This note provides an overview of its more important aspects.
The guideline comes into force on 1st October 2020 and applies to adults who at the time of the offence, and/or at the time of sentencing, have any mental disorder, neurological impairment or developmental disorder. The non-exhaustive range of conditions covered by the guideline is understandably but thankfully wide-ranging.
Without being exhaustive these do include:
- Mental disorders – conditions like schizophrenia, depression or PTSD;
- Developmental disorders – autism or learning disability
- Neurological impairments – acquired brain injury or dementia.
The new guideline has to be welcomed by all those who practise within the criminal justice system. The recognised increasing prevalence of mental disorders amongst offenders could hitherto only be reflected by reference to a limited number of separate guidelines with some Definitive Guidelines referencing as a mitigating factor “mental impairment where linked to the commission of the offence”.
The guideline seeks to put in place a framework that will focus the minds of practitioners and the courts alike when approaching a complex area; mental disorders, developmental disorders and neurological impairments now cannot simply be ignored or dismissed as being only of limited relevance by courts. The guideline seeks to reflect the broader efforts across society over recent years to understand and de-stigmatise these conditions. Of course, it remains moot whether such a purported new understanding will withstand the potential backlash of public opinion against sentences that to those unfamiliar with the detail of any particular case will seem to be “soft.”
Part 1: General approach
The guideline provides an overview of the important principles. The guideline stipulates that “the fact that an offender has an impairment or disorder should always (my emphasis) be considered by the court but will not always have an effect on sentencing”.
Each case will be fact specific. The guideline emphasises an individualistic approach to sentencing, “focused on the issues in the case” as a result of the “wide range of mental disorders, neurological impairments and developmental disorders” and the fact that “the level of any impairment will vary between individuals.
The Court is guided to be mindful of common issues faced when considering mental disorders:
- some mental disorders can fluctuate and an offender’s state during proceedings may not be representative of their condition at the time the offence was committed,
- care should be taken by the Court to avoid making assumptions as mental disorders, neurological impairments or developmental disorders are not easily recognisable,
- no adverse inference should necessarily be drawn if an offender had not previously either been formally diagnosed or willing to disclose an impairment or disorder,
- offenders may be unaware or unwilling to accept they have an impairment or disorder and may fear stigmatisation if they disclose it,
- drug and/or alcohol dependence can be a factor, and may mask an underlying disorder
- it is not uncommon for people to have a number of different impairments and disorders. This is known as ‘co-morbidity’,
- the fact that difficulties of definition and classification in this field are common. There may be differences of expert opinion and diagnosis in relation to the offender or it may be that no specific disorder can be identified,
- a formal diagnosis is not always required, and
- if a formal diagnosis is required, a report by a suitably qualified expert will be necessary.
Further the guideline sets out the importance of “courts [being] aware of relevant cultural, ethnicity and gender considerations of offenders within a mental health context”.
The guideline further reminds courts of the importance of ensuring that that offenders themselves are able to understand their sentence, and the consequences of re-offending or breaching the terms of their licence or supervision. The sentencing court must “ensure that any ancillary orders, such as restraining orders, are capable of being understood and fulfilled by the offender. Courts should therefore put the key points in a clear and straightforward way”.
Part 2: Assessing culpability
The guideline provides the court with a framework to carry out such an assessment of culpability. First, culpability should be assessed with reference to any relevant offence-specific guideline. Second, the court should consider whether culpability was reduced by reason of the impairment or disorder. When sentencing, the court must state clearly its assessment of whether the offender’s culpability was reduced and, if it was, the reasons for and extent of any reduction made.
Crucially, culpability “will only be reduced if there is sufficient connection between the offender’s impairment or disorder and the offending behaviour.” Accordingly, it seems likely that the question of “sufficient connection” will be critical in determining this guideline will have on any offence-specific guideline.
The effect is that “in some cases, the impairment or disorder may mean that culpability is significantly reduced. In other cases, the impairment or disorder may have no relevance to culpability. A careful analysis of all the circumstances of the case and all relevant materials is therefore required”.
All relevant materials will often include expert reports. However, as before, the court is not bound by the recommendations made in such reports:
“The court, who will be in possession of all relevant information, is in the best position to make the assessment of culpability. Where relevant expert evidence is put forward, it must always be considered and will often be very valuable. However, it is the duty of the court to make their own decision, and the court is not bound to follow expert opinion if there are compelling reasons to set it aside”.
Although it is not expressly set out as such this could be read as meaning that the Court would need to make it clear as to why the recommendation is not being followed. In this regard, the guideline reflects the approach of Court of Appeal in (R v Vowles  EWCA Crim 45) in which the LCJ made clear that courts should not feel circumscribed by psychiatric opinion.
The guideline sets out a (expressly non-exhaustive) series of questions which courts may find useful in determining culpability:
- At the time of the offence did the offender’s impairment or disorder impair their ability:
- to exercise appropriate judgement,
- to make rational choices, or
- to understand the nature and consequences of their actions?
- At the time of the offence, did the offender’s impairment or disorder cause them to behave in a disinhibited way?
- Are there other factors related to the offender’s impairment or disorder which reduce culpability?
- Medication. Where an offender was failing to take medication prescribed to them at the time of the offence, the court will need to consider the extent to which that failure was wilful or arose as a result of the offender’s lack of insight into their impairment or disorder.
- “Self-medication”. Where an offender made their impairment or disorder worse by “self-medicating” with alcohol or non-prescribed or illicit drugs at the time of the offence, the court will need to consider the extent to which the offender was aware that would be the effect.
- Insight. Courts need to be cautious before concluding that just because an offender has some insight into their impairment or disorder and/or insight into the importance of taking their medication, that insight automatically increases the culpability for the offence. Any insight, and its effect on culpability, is a matter of degree for the court to assess.
Part 3: Determining the sentence
The guideline sets out three general principles, derived from the case of (R v PS  EWCA Crim 2286):
- Impairments or disorders experienced by the offender are factors which courts are required to consider at Step 1 (where the impairment or disorder is linked to the offence) or at Step 2 (where it is not linked to the offence) when considering the stepped approach set out in offence-specific guidelines;
- Impairments or disorders may be relevant to the decision about the type of sentence imposed, in particular a disposal under powers contained in the MHA 1983;
- Impairments or disorders may be relevant to an assessment of whether the offender is “dangerous” as that term is defined for sentencing purposes in Chapter 5 of Part 12 of the CJA 2003.
The guideline further summarises the wide range of disposals for consideration, running from fines / discharges through to hybrid orders. The suitability (or otherwise) of particular disposals, including commonly made community order requirements such as Mental Health Treatment Requirements (MHTR), Rehabilitation Requirement (RAR), Alcohol Treatment Requirement (ATR) and Drug Rehabilitation Requirement (DRR)) is considered. The guideline states that a community order with an MHTR, RAR, ATR or RAR may be a “proper alternative[s] to a short or moderate custodial sentence.”
In respect of custodial sentences, a mental disorder or impairment “may be relevant to the length of sentence and to the issue of whether any sentence may be suspended… because an offender’s impairment or disorder may mean that a custodial sentence weighs more heavily on them and/or because custody can exacerbate the effects of impairments or disorders” albeit as with cases of physical ill-health, “impairments or disorders can only be taken into account in a limited way so far as the impact of custody is concerned”.
Issues surrounding public protection are considered in some detail. Again, assumptions are to be guarded against: “It should not be assumed that one order is better than another, or that one order offers greater protection to the public than another”. However, the general principle expressed by the guideline is that “the graver the offence, the greater the risk to the public on release of the offender, and the greater the emphasis the court must place upon the protection of the public and the release regime”
The three annexes published alongside the guideline collate the important information that both practitioners and courts need to navigate the sentencing process:
- Annex A – ‘Disorders’ – helpfully sets out the “main classes of mental disorders and presenting features”, a crib-sheet which usefully set out “some of the more common disorders likely to be relevant in court”;
- Annex B – ‘Reports’ – provides guidance for the court when seeking expert reports to assist in the sentencing exercise. It further sets out the additional requirements for sentencing mentally disordered offenders pursuant to s.157 Criminal Justice Act 2003;
- Annex C – ‘Sentencing disposals: criteria and release provisions’ – essentially summarises the law in relation to disposals under the Mental Health Act 1983 (e.g. s.37 hospital orders, s.41 restriction orders, s.45A hybrid orders) including, where relevant, the relevant release provisions;