A* answer for synoptic exam - 2013 - Insanity and Automatism

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  • Created on: 07-04-13 14:06
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Discuss whether or not the legal definition of insanity requires drastic
revision despite the recent reforms to the defence (34)
The legal definition of insanity was created in 1843 because of the case of Daniel M'Naghten. He was
charged with the murder of Sir Robert Peel's secretary after believing the Tories were out to
persecute him. The judge, because of M'Naghten's mental state, found him not guilty of murder. This
caused a public outcry which led to the House of Lords having to answer various questions about the
defence of insanity. The answers to these abstract questions forms what is now called the
M'Naghten Rules which are referred to in legal cases today. The main rule is that in all cases every
man is presumed to be sane and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his
crimes. It states for the defence of insanity to be established, there are three elements which need
to be proved. These are that the defendant must be labouring under a defect of reason caused by a
disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did now it
that he did not know he was doing what was wrong. Although these rules are not binding precedent
or theoretically not precedent at all the higher courts have adopted them as authority which means
the lower courts technically have to follow the decisions. This has advantages and disadvantages and
contributes to the problem of the reluctance to change the common law on insanity.
Pre-1991, if a defendant was found `not guilty by reason of insanity' the judge had to send the
defendant top a mental hospital regardless of the cause of the insanity of the offence committed.
This proved unsuitable and unfair for those who suffered diabetes, epilepsy or hardening of the
arteries. To reform this area of law, in 1991 the criminal procedure (insanity and unfitness to plead)
act was passed to extend the options for the judge. This gave the judge more discretion when
considering disposals for the defendant. The three options are 1) a hospital order, 2) a supervision
order and 3) an absolute discharge. However if the defendant is charged with murder then the judge
must impose an indefinite hospital order meaning the hospital can only release the defendant from
hospital if the Home Secretary gives consent.
On the one hand these reforms have helped decrease the social stigma attached to the defence of
insanity as the judge now has more discretion for each individual case however there is still other
factors such as precedent as an example which demonstrate how these reforms have had little or no
effect at all.
It can be argued the legal definition of insanity does need revision because the biggest issue is that
the M'Naghten Rules are out of date. They were created in 1843 when medical knowledge was
limited and a modern definition should now be used. However parliament's reform of the options
when sentencing did reduce the injustice towards defendants with diseases such as diabetes and
epilepsy which supports the side that the recent reforms were useful to an extent. However the
label of insanity still has negative consequences as many defendants with epilepsy and diabetes
choose to plead `guilty' over `not guilty by reason of insanity' as they feel a custodial sentence is
better than the special verdict an example being R v Sullivan. However in cases like R v Sullivan, the
defendants disease could recur which then could become dangerous because there is an internal
cause of their actions and the aim of the M'Naghten Rules is to protect society and for that to happen

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A positive aspect of the legal definition is, if the disease is likely to
recur it may be possible to treat it.
A major problem with the recent reforms on the legal definition of insanity is that they still didn't
amend the fact that some dangerous and potentially dangerous medical conditions aren't included.…read more

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The only problem with this overlap is the
defendants may only receive a custodial sentence which in the long term wouldn't necessarily cure
their disease meaning when released out of prison they may re-offend and still be of risk to society.…read more


Smith E

It is always helpful to see a fully composed essay, to get a sense of how to construct an essay question on a particular topic, how to work an explanation of cases into the body of the text, indicate criticism, and so forth. This essay was composed pre the Coroners Act reforms – what changes were adopted?

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