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Domestic Homicide

Oral Answers to Questions — Attorney-General – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 11th February 2014.

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Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham 11:30 am, 11th February 2014

What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the use of diminished responsibility defences in domestic homicide cases.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

The CPS is working to strengthen its approach to domestic homicide cases, particularly where the partial defence of diminished responsibility is raised.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that domestic homicide trials where the defence is one of diminished responsibility deteriorate into character assassinations of the victim, rather than focusing on the facts of the case. Will he say what steps the CPS is taking to mitigate that issue, particularly to reduce the trauma to victims and their families?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on homicide as a subject, and I agree with her. The Crown Prosecution Services needs to take and will take a challenging attitude in three areas. The first is unwarranted attacks on the deceased’s character. The second is the need to emphasise the context of domestic violence, which is an aggregating feature, and to bring out evidence about the true dynamics of the relationship, so that such cases are treated as cases of domestic violence. The third is that the CPS should be aware that the existence of a recognised mental condition does not necessarily mean that it amounts to an abnormality of mental functioning sufficient for grounds of diminished responsibility.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

The “Domestic Homicide Reviews” lessons learned paper published last year stated that the CPS was “looking to strengthen guidance” for prosecutors about bail applications. Has that happened, because people on bail too often go on to reoffend?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

The guidance on that area is being worked on at present, but I will certainly ensure that the hon. Lady’s concern is reflected back.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

The law of diminished responsibility very often depends on expert evidence from psychiatrists. In complex cases, decisions about such important offences are far too often made at the last minute. Is my hon. and learned Friend happy about existing protocols in relation to making sure that psychiatric evidence can be agreed at the earliest possible opportunity, and that the consequences of important decisions based on that evidence can be explained in ordinary English to the families of the victims?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

My hon. Friend makes the very important point that the bereaved should meet the prosecutor post-charge and pre-trial. As I said a moment ago, the troubled issue of the meaning of a recognised mental condition in these circumstances should be examined in a challenging way by Crown prosecutors.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

These are very serious and complex cases. Does the Solicitor-General propose to look at sentencing guidelines for cases where it is found that any of the parties involved suffers from a mental illness?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there are guideline cases dealing with manslaughter. The judge has to have discretion because, as he will know only too well, there are cases in which the mental condition is suddenly there and an incident occurs that is totally out of character for the accused. In those cases, adequate discretion needs to be available.