The case of a man, known only as C, who has been released on parole from a secure mental hospital has grabbed headlines. “Killer in our midst” cried The Sun. References to the double murder for which C was initially convicted, were frequently occurring.
And this isn’t really surprising because what was distinctive and unusual about this case is that C, who was indeed convicted of two murders in the 1990s, has won a legal battle to remain anonymous. This was viewed as central to him rebuilding his life. And this is what has infuriated many commentators.
But the issue is not so straight-forward. The crimes were, truly, horrific. Victims must be entitled to justice. But a number of other factors come into play.
C had completed his sentence at a secure mental hospital, not a prison. His treatment and incarceration was carried out under the Mental Health Act and as such the courts ultimately accepted that treatment carried with it a right for the patient to remain anonymous.
Lady Hale, who chaired the Supreme Court hearing, said that in each case there needed to be a balance between the public’s right and desire to know the details, and the damage that disclosure would do to – not just to the patient, but to those involved in providing treatment and care to him. (In coming to this ruling, the Supreme Court overturned previous rulings from lower courts that said C could be named).
But a heart-rending letter from one of C’s victim’s sisters, published in The Sun, showed just why this is such a controversial matter. The key legal point seems to be the provisions of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004.
“The Guardian” quoted Lady Hale as saying that “These rights, though limited, should enable the providers (of probation services) to reassure the victims’ families in this case that the arrangements made for the discharge of the patient will not put them at risk in any way.”
C was somewhere where the objective was rehabilitation (or recovery). He has passed a number of milestones which indicated the progress he was making. The court no doubt relied on expert opinion. So we can see that this particular case, judged on its own merits and taking all the circumstances into account, left the Supreme Court believing that justice required them to grant the appeal for anonymity.
And herein lies a challenging problem that has wider application than this exceptional case. What if despite the legal arguments, and the imperative that the Supreme Court felt compelled to act on –there are not the services available to ensure that the court’s full writ is run: that someone is released back in to the community but the conditions on which he is released cannot be met. I am not suggesting that this is the case with C – but you can see the problem that can arise.
Simple, some might say. In that case the person has to stay incarcerated: They cannot be released. But this would mean justice is denied because of an administrative issue. And that surely cannot be right.
It cannot be right because there is a vital public interest in the rule of law – for people being detained, in the process of being released, and the society they are being released into. Like it our not, the issues of justice and resources allocated to social care, probation and related court services cannot be disentangled.
If we look at the question of people being locked up as opposed to let out, we can see how sentencing policy has fed through into other areas – rehabilitation in prison, the prison population, staffing and so on.
So for the purely managerially minded, not taking a sufficiently rounded view of these issues is simply counter-productive – it clogs up the already-stretched system and leads to outcomes that cost more than they save. A lot like medically-fit hospital patients blocking beds because there are not enough doctors to discharge them, or inadequate (or absent) social care in the place they are being discharged to.
But this is not and can never be a purely managerial issue. Whether viewed through the prism of detention or release, how justice works in practice affects us all. But we all always need to remember that whatever ends you what to see, you have to will the means too!