Thursday, 26 August 2010

As broad as it is long?

Sometimes, a guilty plea cannot be the end of the story. That is the lesson from a recent case in the Court of Appeal. (R v Walton, 5 August 2010) Where a man who had been allowed to plead guilty to several offences in fact lacked the capacity to do so, his conviction was overturned. The outcome, however, remains substantially the same.

Andrew Walton has a history of offences, including burglary and criminal damage. He has breached two conditional discharges and failed to surrender to bail. When he was arrested again, for being drunk and disorderly, police found bread knives in his possession. He was charged with two offences in that regard, and also, subsequently, with sexual activity in the presence of a child.

There was a wealth of expert evidence concerning Mr Walton. It was said that he had been sexually abused as a child and that his IQ might be as low as 54. A psychologist said he had rarely come across such profound disability and it was felt that Mr Walton was unfit to plead. But this evidence was only used for the purpose of sentencing. Mr Walton had entered a plea of guilty, and a hospital order was imposed upon him under the Mental Health Act 1983. So great a risk was he thought to pose that special restrictions were added, limiting the circumstances in which he could be discharged or even given leave.

Mr Walton appealed this result, arguing that if the expert evidence had been treated properly, he could not have been required to enter a plea. The evidence showed, he said, that he had not understood the significance of a guilty plea: he simply thought it would help him get away earlier to catch his train.

The Court of Appeal was sympathetic to Mr Walton’s arguments, and it quashed his conviction in favour of an absolute discharge. The hospital order and its restrictions would, however, continue to have effect.

Despite his success, Mr Walton remains confined. That state-of-affairs reflects the fact that if appropriate inquiry had been made and Mr Walton found unfit to plead, the court would still have enjoyed the power to do what it did. That power might arise under a discrete statute – the Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act 1964 (as amended) – but the result of its use is precisely the same: the patient is subject to a hospital order and liable to be detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983.