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Law and (Dis)order: Mental Health and Justice (part 1)

Eyes glazed and glaring, it was easy to tell that this case was not going to be easy. The defendant was in the dock restless and agitated, his lawyer struggling to maintain his professional detachment whilst relaying the facts of what was clearly a complex and painful set of events. It did not make for pretty reading, and maintaining an impartial and objective air was difficult.

These are the types of days that I wish that instead of getting up, getting dressed and carrying out my civic duty, I turned over, wrapped my duvet around me and switched on Netflix instead. In my six years as a magistrate, today has been – hands down – the worst day in highlighting to me how the UK justice system continues to struggle with the issue of mental health amongst its men, particularly its young men.

The defendants may differ but the stories, the crimes and the issues remain sadly familiar. Homelessness, addiction, violence and mental illness all feature strongly in the various cases that I see, from assault to fraud and theft. The court can deal with the crime (even as part of a community order including a requirement to attend drug/alcohol/behavioural counselling) but it cannot and does not deal with the underlying issues that cause the crime to happen in the first place. Some may argue that that is not the court’s job but surely anything that can be done to prevent crime should not be restricted to one person or group’s responsibility.

For me, the problem is clear. The police, lawyers, probation, (mental) health professionals, judges etc do what they can but it is all in silos, large chunks of potentially life-saving information remaining unshared – locked in old-fashioned filing cabinets, inaccessible in the deep ether. Instead of competition, there needs to be cooperation; instead of secrecy, there needs to be sincerity, openness and honesty; instead of treating people as statistics and data points, it’s time to get a grip and treat them as individuals with their own particular set of needs and add a large dollop of common sense in for good measure!

From what I saw today and the lives that have been affected, in terms of mental health, more needs to be done and it needs to start now.


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