Automatism as a Legal Defence

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield 4:30 pm, 14th May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered automatism as a legal defence.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. We have met in these roles on previous occasions, and you know that I will try very hard to stick to all the rules and obey every indication that comes from the Chair. I can see you are smiling at that, Mr Owen.

This is a difficult subject. Let me first say, as someone who has been in the House a long time, that when we introduced the notion of a smaller debating Chamber—Westminster Hall—a lot of people criticised it and said, “Will it work?” In fact, it is a great asset to Parliament that we can use this debating Chamber for many of the issues that we have great passion about and that we care about. We may raise them in a parliamentary question in the main Chamber, but when we want to go into something in a bit of depth, this Chamber is the right environment in which to do so.

I am tackling today something that I care passionately about, but which is a little bit complex. I confess that although I have a couple of skeletons in my cupboard, in that I have a daughter and a son-in-law who are lawyers, I am not a lawyer, and it is quite a technical area that we are looking at.

Most Members of the House will know by now that I am a passionate campaigner for road safety and ending road deaths. I started the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Many years ago, my first private Member’s Bill banned children from being carried unrestrained in cars. Then I organised, with a cross-party group, the seatbelt legislation, which was aided a little bit by the Father of the House at the time; the Father of the House now was at that time a young Minister. I am passionate about stopping the waste of life on the roads, and many of the campaigns that I get involved in are about seeing things from the victim’s point of view. I am thinking of the knock on the door. There are several thousand of these cases even in this country today, but there are many more deaths worldwide—1.2 million a year. People will get a knock on the door to say that their daughter or son is dead, or their mum, dad, uncle or aunt is. It is the victim that I am really concerned about, so often, and my passion for this subject comes from the fact that once someone is a victim—once they are dead—they cannot speak for themselves, so it is for us to speak up for them.

Today, I want to talk about automatism, because it is concerning that increasingly we hear of road deaths and road accidents where someone who is driving a car ploughs into a number of people—I will give some examples as I make my case—several people die in this dreadful accident and then the person who was driving the car gets a very good lawyer who says, “Oh, you obviously were in a state of automatism. You weren’t responsible for your action.” That is increasingly being used by well informed and clever lawyers to represent people who get into such a situation, and I want to deal with some particular aspects of that.

I called for this debate because I searched Hansard and was not able to find any mention of automatism since 2008. Back in 2008, two private Members’ Bills were introduced; they related to different aspects of automatism. Automatism can be used in relation not just to road deaths and road accidents, but to rape and murder. The most familiar case of that is when people defend their action of rape or murder by saying that it was automatism; they were sleepwalking and were not responsible for their actions.

Today, I want to tackle this issue, because I believe that there is an injustice out there and I am speaking for the victims who can no longer speak. I have become familiar with many high-profile cases in which automatism has been used as a legal defence to avoid criminal prosecution, particularly in relation to incidents that occur on the roads, although concerns surrounding the use of automatism as a defence are, as I have said, not exclusive to driving offences.

Automatism is a common-law defence used by defendants in court. There are numerous definitions, which makes defining this state difficult, but I will try. An article in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine describes legal automatism as “a state of involuntariness” and says that it

“exonerates the individual because the criminal justice system only punishes those acting voluntarily.”

Automatism is broadly divided into two types: sane automatism and insane automatism. “Sane” relates to cases of sleepwalking, fainting and hypoglycaemic attack, whereas “insane” relates to schizophrenia and diseases of the mind.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

I heard about this defence quite a long time ago, in 2002, because of the very high-profile case of Peter Buck, the guitarist in the rock group R.E.M. He was charged for air rage on a BA flight and he did not deny his behaviour, but he claimed that a zolpidem sleeping pill reacted violently with alcohol, turning him into a non-insane automaton—you could say that he was acting “Automatically against the People”. Does my hon. Friend think that in that sort of case, in which there is no injury, automatism is a valid defence?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was going to mention the R.E.M. case, which, as he says, is a very famous one. Can I come back to that? He is absolutely right, and I will come back to it in a moment.

The requirements of a defence of non-insane automatism—I am not dealing with insane automatism—are that, first, there must exist an involuntary action arising from an external source or reflex action; secondly, the action must be completely involuntary; and thirdly, the automatism must not be self-induced. Some academic literature states that the automatism defence is increasingly being used, but the problem is that no statistics are kept on how often the automatism defence is pleaded or succeeds. The word I hear from the justice system more broadly is when a senior policeman or policewoman comes up to me and says, “Look, we’re in real difficulties prosecuting here, because the defendant is going to use automatism. It’s going to be very, very difficult, because the CPS will be very reluctant to bring the prosecution.” In a sense, what I am trying to bring to the public gaze today is this question: why do we not know how many cases are not proceeded with because the Crown Prosecution Service thinks that it is all too difficult, that the chances of getting a conviction are not good with a clever lawyer using automatism as the reason for the defendant’s behaviour?

I want to give a couple of examples. In 2014, there was the terrible accident in Glasgow involving a council-owned waste lorry that collided with pedestrians in the city centre, killing six people and injuring 15 others. The driver said that he had passed out at the wheel, and he was not prosecuted. Glasgow sheriff court was told that the driver had passed out at the wheel and heard evidence regarding his alleged failure to disclose a history of dizziness and blackouts in job applications and when renewing his licence.

Nicky Selby-Short, a solicitor in Access Legal’s specialist personal injury team, comments:

“There may be occasions when such a defence is entirely justified, but claiming automatism is likely to continue to be used by defendants since it is a good tactic;
however, it is accepted it will leave innocent claimants with no award whatsoever for what are often very serious injuries” and, of course, death.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

The hon. Gentleman is of course raising a really important issue, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that to make out this defence, the burden is on the defendant to advance evidence, which may be in the form of medical evidence. It would be quite wrong to give the impression that somehow a defendant could simply say, “I’m invoking non-insane automatism,” and get off scot-free. The burden is on him to prove it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Absolutely, I agree with that, but as I make my case, I think the hon. Gentleman will understand why I am worried about what happens at the moment.

The second case I want to mention is R v. Burton in 2007. An elderly motorist killed a married couple in a high-speed crash and was controversially cleared of all blame by a judge, after claiming that he may have been in a state of automatism at the time. Experts said that retired businessman Arnold Burton may not have known what he was doing when he smashed head-on into the couple’s car, while doing at least 76 mph in a 30-mile speed limit in his Jaguar X-Type.

Leeds Crown court was told that the 89-year-old, whose father founded the Burton clothing empire, could have been suffering from a lack of blood to the brain. Prosecutors decided to offer no evidence on two charges of causing death by dangerous driving after psychiatrists concluded that Mr Burton might not have been aware at the time. The recorder of Leeds, Judge Norman Jones, said that the elderly motorist was “driving automatically” and that his

“brain was not in control of his body” when the crash happened.

In Glasgow, in 2010, two little girls were killed while Christmas shopping by a Range Rover that hit them on the pavement. The charges against the driver were dropped, because he suffered a loss of consciousness, owing to an undiagnosed medical condition.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way. Where a road accident leads to someone losing a life, one’s heart goes out to the victims and those who are left behind. However, it is important that one injustice is not replaced by another injustice. If it really is the case that that individual was effectively unconscious, surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that he should be criminally culpable none the less. It may be that he should not have his driving licence, but that is another issue. If he is truly unconscious, surely he is not criminally liable.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I believe in evidence-based policy. We have a great deficiency in the transport safety area that I keep nagging the Government about. In Sweden, every time there is a fatality on the roads, there is a thorough investigation. That does not happen in the United Kingdom. There is no highly skilled investigation of an accident involving a death. There is a real problem finding out what really happened.

I will whisk through the prominent case that highlights how automatism might be used too broadly. It involves Peter Buck from the band R.E.M., who was acquitted of charges of two counts of common assault and one count of criminal damage while being drunk on a plane. There was a good defence. What distinguished Mr Buck’s case from others of this nature was that he raised the defence of automatism in a Court of Appeal, which described non-insane automatism as

“malfunctioning of the mind of transitory effect caused by the application to the body of some external factor such as violence, drugs, including anaesthetics, alcohol and hypnotic influences”.

Mr Buck sought to establish that the commission of the offences he was charged with lacked a mental element due to a transitory effect caused by the external factor of red wine combined with sleeping tablets.

However, a defendant cannot simply absolve himself of all responsibility for his actions by blaming pills and alcohol. A self-induced incapacity will not excuse; nor will one that could reasonably have been foreseen, such as the result of taking alcohol against medical advice after using certain prescribed drugs or failing to have regular meals while taking insulin. However, Mr Buck produced his prescription bottle, which did not contain a warning about mixing alcohol, so he was acquitted.

While it is difficult to put forward a defence of automatism, once such a defence has been established—this is what legal experts tell me—it falls on the prosecution to disprove the evidence of automatism beyond reasonable doubt. I am not trying to turn the justice system upside down; I am merely shining a light on the increasing use of automatism as a defence.

Forms of automatism have also been used to defend people who have been accused of rape. Sexsomnia is being used internationally. In 2007, in the UK a man was let off for raping a 15-year-old because he claimed sexsomnia. Let us remember that, according to a 2002 London Metropolitan University study, just 6% of cases result in conviction, because of loopholes in the law such as automatism.

Dr Cosmo Hallström, a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

“People do sleep walk and they do strange things in their sleep, but it is usually no more complex than grinding of the teeth or smacking the lips—at most they may get up and make a cup of tea. I would think it was extremely difficult to perform such a complex manoeuvre as having sexual intercourse while asleep—especially if the other person is unwilling.”

Harry Cohen spoke on this in the House of Commons only 11 years ago:

“Anybody up in court on a rape charge could get a few friends and family to claim that he sleepwalks, and he will almost certainly get off.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 801.]

Harry Cohen introduced the Rape (Defences) Bill in 2008 to address this. That Bill sought to prohibit the use of a defence of sleepwalking or non-insane automatism in proceedings relating to the offence of rape.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous with his time. We all want to see more people who are guilty of rape convicted. We all agree that the statistics are shocking. However, on the example that he gave, if the prosecution were able to call evidence to suggest that what was being posited—namely that the defendant raped through non-insane automatism—was a complete fiction and entirely implausible, a jury should have little difficulty giving that defence short shrift and finding the defendant guilty. Does he agree that if it is a bad defence, the prosecution can call evidence to expose it as such?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

The hon. Gentleman is right, but I am trying to get the balance right. There are so few successful prosecutions for rape and there is an increasing tendency worldwide to use this as a reason why the person—usually a man—was unable to know what they were doing.

In 2008, another good former comrade—sorry, colleague —of ours, Dr Brian Iddon introduced the Road Traffic (Accident Compensation) Bill, which sought to provide no-fault compensation for personal injury in road traffic accidents where liability cannot be established. This is the nub of the matter. However many people are killed or injured in an accident involving automatism, there is no compensation. How can that be just? In such cases, the victim is left injured or killed, but with no compensation for the family. Surely, the Minister would agree that it is time to consider introducing a no-fault compensation system in this area, as is used in other countries such as New Zealand.

We are coming to the end of the story. In 2013 the Law Commission undertook a review and produced a discussion paper called “Criminal Liability: Insanity and Automatism”. It produced a range of recommendations for reform of this defence. I hope that Alex Chalk, who intervened on me two or three times, will be able to hear this, because it is germane to his interventions. Much of the report focused on the need for modernisation and reform of the law around insane automatism or the insanity defence. It recommended that the arcane criminal law be reformed by replacing it with the new defence of

“not criminally responsible by reason of recognised medical condition”.

However, it also proposed to abolish the less clearly defined common law defence of automatism in favour of a reformed automatism defence that was clearer and narrower in scope. To the best of my knowledge, the Government have not since acted on those recommendations. I ask the Minister what actions, if any, the Government have taken in relation to clearing up the legal problems identified by the Law Commission. Will the Government undertake to enact any of the proposed reforms recommended by the Law Commission?

This is about victims and justice. What is really going on in the undisclosed statistics from the Crown Prosecution Service? What is going on in the desperately underfunded justice system that we operate in this country? I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. How many more miscarriages of justice will happen, not because of ill-will or badly motivated, wicked people, but because of a lack of resources, investment and personnel?

There is no scheme in the UK to compensate victims of genuine automatism. A person who is injured through no fault of their own has no opportunity for compensation for what are often serious injuries or death. Sometimes an insurance company makes an ex gratia payment to an injured party, but that is rare. As it stands, the law offers no protection to the often entirely blameless victims of the automatism defence.

It is not surprising that this effective get-out-of-jail-free card is being used more frequently by defendants. Countries that operate no-fault compensation schemes include France—it has implemented a no-fault standard for serious and unforeseen medical injuries, and a fault standard—and New Zealand, which has also put in place a no-fault compensation scheme with the broadest eligibility criteria; the no-fault standard is applicable to any unexpected treatment injury.

On the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, an article in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry notes that in a criminal trial, it can be difficult to decide whether to hold responsible a defendant who did the act but claims that their mental state was abnormal because of the lack of objective evidence. There is no brain scan or blood test to measure responsibility. The best witness to what was in the defendant’s mind is usually the defendant, who obviously has an interest in what the court decides.

I have always said that we need good evidence-based policy, but we lack the evidence and statistics about how often automatism is evoked as a legal defence. As I talk to people in the police and the Crown Prosecution Service up and down the country, there is a suspicion in my mind that the defence is increasingly becoming a way for well-heeled people who can get the right solicitor to get off dreadful crimes on the road. We know that there is a group of solicitors who can find some defence to get rock stars or people in the public eye off.

Despite many high-profile cases, we do not know how often this occurs. How many cases are not being brought to trial because prosecutors have lost confidence that they can challenge the evidence? How aware are the police, while they are investigating a case, about people invoking automatism? We need evidence to evaluate whether clever lawyers are using the defence to get people off.

This is about justice for people who can no longer fight their own corner. This Chamber is the right environment for this debate, and I hope I have made a coherent case.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 4:53 pm, 14th May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate Mr Sheerman on bringing this interesting and important issue to the Chamber, and on the eloquent and passionate way that he explained the background. I also pay tribute to him for his work on road safety over the years.

I, too, apologise in advance to any criminal lawyers or criminal law academics who are watching the debate, as I am about to blunder into it with a few thoughts. In years gone by, I was a lawyer, for my sins, but not a criminal lawyer, so I am somewhat reluctant to wade in.

The debate allows us to consider whether the principles behind the defence of automatism are right and to ask whether there is evidence for the term being too broadly defined so there have been unjust acquittals or for it being too narrowly drawn so people have been convicted who should not have been. As has been explained, in simplified terms, the defence of automatism involves the defendant showing that his conduct was involuntary, so he cannot be held criminally liable for it.

Criminal law in England and Wales and in Scotland recognises versions of automatism. That has been developed case by case under common law. Its terminology and operation, in certain circumstances, can look a little strange and dated. There are differences, but both jurisdictions—of England and Wales and of Scotland—have historically made distinctions between, on the one hand, automatism caused by so-called internal factors, which can justify a plea of insanity, although that has changed a bit in Scotland recently, and, on the other, automatism caused by external factors where the defendant was not at fault for inducing that state.

The key point is that, as a broad principle—I do not think the hon. Gentleman suggested otherwise—the idea that someone cannot be criminally responsible for involuntary acts must be right. Convicting a person for involuntary acts would not serve the purposes of the criminal justice system. We cannot rehabilitate someone who needs no rehabilitation, because they did not choose to do wrong, and we cannot deter people if they have no control over what they are doing. It is fundamentally wrong to punish people where there is no responsibility.

The question that has been posed today, however, is whether that is working in practice and whether it is being interpreted too broadly or narrowly. As with any criminal defence, there will be individual cases where some people—sometimes many people—question whether justice has properly been done one way or another. The hon. Gentleman highlighted some difficult and heartbreaking cases.

The hon. Gentleman also flagged up concerns that the defence has been increasingly relied on by criminal lawyers. I confess that I have not picked up on that, but he is obviously far more engaged in the issue than I am. I certainly agree, however, that it would be good to have greater transparency about it. I am interested to know whether the Minister is willing to try to see whether there is a better method to record how often the defence is being used or seems to be a barrier for the prosecution. We need to know what is happening either way.

On the whole, from what I understand, the balance of case law seems to suggest that the courts will usually take a pretty narrow view of the scope of the defence—the word “scepticism” has sometimes been used. As the hon. Gentleman said, several cases involve drivers, some of whom are diabetic drivers. I found the example of Broome v. Perkins in the textbooks, where the defendant, although in a hypoglycaemic state, was found guilty of driving without due care and attention, because from time to time he apparently exercised conscious control of his car by veering away from other vehicles to avoid a collision, braking violently and so on. In the Court of Appeal, it was said that the defendant would need to show that he was totally unable to control his actions owing to an unforeseen hypoglycaemic attack, that he could not reasonably have avoided the attack and that there was no advance warning of its onset.

In Scotland, the jury manual published by the Judicial Institute for Scotland also seems to be strict in setting out the requirements for defending externally caused automatism. It says that

“the external factor must not be self-induced, that it must be one which the accused was not bound to foresee and that it must have resulted in a total alienation of reason amounting to a total loss of control of his actions in regard to the crime with which he is charged…the whole point of the defence is that the accused was suffering from a total loss of control over his actions in regard to the crime with which he is charged. Unless there is evidence directed to this essential point, the defence is not available. It is a point of such importance that it cannot be left to speculation, and a few casual remarks or feelings by the witnesses will not do. There must be clear evidence to support it, and this means that the evidence must be specific on all details which are material.”

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a real problem with medical evidence, if there is no charge, is that it is difficult for the victims ever to understand what the medical reason was? If there is no trial, there is no explanation of what kind of ill health caused the accident. The fact is that many drivers who are not charged continue to drive and may have the same medical condition. That is a real problem. In Scotland, however, there are more advanced laws on many of these issues than we have.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

I would like to think so, but I am not absolutely convinced.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Certainly, on alcohol, we have taken the step to reduce the limit up to which people can drive to virtually nothing.

As I say, there has to be transparency. I am not aware that this has caused a problem for the prosecution services, but I am now alive to those concerns and I will perhaps try to establish whether that is the case. In some examples, however, when the burden is on the defendant to prove the case, I am not sure that it would stop a prosecution in the first place—the prosecution would proceed and the issues would come out afterwards. I do not have an easy answer, however, and this is something that I definitely need to look into.

Also, when we look at all these things in the round, the prosecution service has to be aware of what other action needs to be taken to stop such things happening again, even if there is not a prosecution subsequent to an accident of the sort that we have been talking about. There are other disposals or actions available, as Alex Chalk said, in relation to making sure that that person no longer drives, for example. However, we need reassurance that that is definitely happening.

In short, the point that I was making there was that what the courts have been looking for is

“a total destruction of voluntary control”, to quote one case. The hon. Member for Huddersfield has rightly flagged up a number of other areas of controversy. This issue is not just about driving; there have been a number of cases where the defence of sleepwalking has been used in relation to accusations of sexual offences. However, the principle remains that the defence of automatism must be available if the evidence is there to justify it.

Should there be reform at all? In 2010 in Scotland, the internal-cause “insanity” defence was replaced by a mental disorder defence. This requires that an accused, at the time of the conduct constituting a crime, must have been

“unable by reason of mental disorder to appreciate the nature or wrongfulness of the conduct.”

Then there is a detailed definition of “mental disorder”. As I understand it, that reform has been broadly welcomed. That said, it is only fair to point out that some have criticised the Scottish Law Commission’s report because it ignored “external-cause” automatism, thereby arguably missing the opportunity to ensure that the law here is coherent and comprehensive in relation to what are really two closely related and even overlapping defences.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman referred to the Law Commission in England and Wales, and its report, which I think was done in 2013, when it carried out a similar review. It looked at both types of automatism defence and recommended a new statutory “recognised medical condition” defence, which I think is along the same lines as the Scottish defence. However, it also went for a new and more tightly drawn statutory automatism offence. I also understand that, so far, the Government here have decided not to act on that advice. They might have good reasons for that, but it is obviously up to the Minister to set them out today.

From my point of view, there may well be good reasons for looking at the two sides of automatism together, because it makes a significant difference which is considered, in terms of where the burden of proof lies and what disposals are available to a court if the defence is made out.

I do not come to any fixed conclusion on that, but on the whole I will just say finally that we need defences of this nature to be available to ensure that justice is done. For the most part, the current system seems to be working in practice and the courts have been justifiably restrictive in interpreting the scope of these defences. There will be controversial criminal verdicts—that does not necessarily mean that there is a fundamental injustice in the nature of these defences—but I absolutely take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said today about there being some concern that automatism is being increasingly relied on. That should be looked at. We need more transparency about what is going on—

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Absolutely—the victims need to know what is happening in a particular case and they also need a full explanation of why any prosecution does not go ahead, including the nature of any medical evidence, if that is at all possible.

I am absolutely alive to arguments for improvement and reform. The hon. Gentleman also made some interesting comments about a compensation scheme. I had not considered that in advance of the debate, but I will go away and consider it too.

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for securing this debate. It has been very interesting and thought provoking, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security) 5:02 pm, 14th May 2019

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Owen. It is also a pleasure to follow Stuart C. McDonald; I congratulate him on his speech.

I also refer at the outset to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a non-practising barrister now at Civitas Law in Cardiff. I was a practising barrister for a number of years before entering the House, but I practised in criminal law only for a few years at the start of my career at the Bar.

I also warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman on his opening speech and on bringing this matter before the House. Although they are no longer in their places, I am grateful to my hon. Friend Alex Sobel and Alex Chalk for their contributions to the debate.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield about the utility of Westminster Hall, particularly for a debate on an issue such as this, which is very important but none the less quite technical in terms of how we deal with it. I share my hon. Friend’s passion for road safety, and he spoke movingly of a knock on the door bringing extremely bad news about a close family member.

My hon. Friend is also entirely right to say that the automatism defence is little understood, and I think that it is indicative that it has not even been mentioned in Hansard since 2008, which shows how long this House and this Parliament have gone without considering it.

On the issue of statistics, in the past I have argued about statistics in relation to a number of different offences. It is clearly an issue for the Crown Prosecution Service, superintended of course by the Law Officers, to determine what statistics are collected, when they are collected and for which particular offences. Particularly in cases where there are clearly victims who will be extraordinarily affected by the events, it is important that it is transparent as to what has happened at each stage of the process. If something does not reach prosecution in the first place, why does it not reach prosecution? There should be a full explanation. If the matter is discontinued at some stage between charge and trial, why is that? If there is a not guilty verdict in the end, why has that happened? Communication to victims throughout the process is vital.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

On that point, I said that in Sweden there is an absolutely high-class specialist unit that examines every death on the road, whereas in England and Wales the fact is that there is only very patchy expertise when it comes to investigating such a death. A defence of automatism is quite an unusual thing to happen in a police area and the competences required to investigate it are very specific indeed. Does my hon. Friend agree that, given some of the recent cuts in the police of this country, that aspect of the investigative side of affairs has been badly hit?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the issue of cuts in police officers affecting things right across the board. Clearly, there are different levels of investigation. For example, if there is an injury in a road traffic accident, that triggers a certain level of investigation, and similarly if there is a death. However, in a sense, the fact that we do not have a body equivalent to the one in Sweden underlines the point that I am making about the need for transparency throughout the process.

By the way, I will also add, regarding the decisions made by prosecutors, that every prosecutor has to apply the code for Crown prosecutors. First, is there a realistic prospect of conviction? Secondly, is it in the public interest to bring a prosecution? If that process is not happening, that needs to be brought to light, and the superintendence by the Law Officers is absolutely vital to ensure that, right through the system, that process is happening. If there is anywhere where it is not happening, that should not be the case.

While I am on the subject of the Crown Prosecution Service, I will refer to the sleepwalking cases that my hon. Friend mentioned. The CPS has recently issued legal guidance about the sleepwalking cases, which should be available to everyone involved in the area, including the prosecutors, on how to challenge the automatism defence appropriately before a judge, if it is raised. If the defence uses expert evidence, which it is likely to, the CPS says this to its prosecuting lawyers:

“Such evidence should always be analysed by an expert for the prosecution.”

That is what we would expect to happen. Indeed, as long ago as 1958, Mr Justice Devlin, in the case of Hill v. Baxter, said:

“I do not doubt that there are genuine cases of automatism, but I do not see how the layman can safely attempt, without the help of some medical or scientific evidence, to distinguish the genuine from the fraudulent.”

We would expect there to be experts on both sides in such a case that came before the criminal courts, and for many of the reasons that my hon. Friend outlined during his fine speech that is how it should be, and I would hope to see that in the criminal courts.

My hon. Friend also referred to the comments of the Law Commission on this issue, and I will come on to them with the Minister. Actually, the Law Commission’s document was very useful, in terms of the need for reform in this area. Looking at the defence of insanity—I appreciate that there is a distinction between non-insane and insane automatism, and I will come to that in a moment—in essence, it goes back to 1843. Frankly, it has not changed much since then, which is a real issue.

The Law Commission accepted the principle of the automatism defence, but it made a substantial number of criticisms of it, regarding what has to be done to bring it up to date and make it fit for the modern day. The Law Commission said:

“We take the view that it is unjust to hold people criminally responsible when they could not have avoided committing the alleged crime, through no fault of their own. Put another way, a person should be exempted from criminal responsibility if he or she totally lacked capacity to conform to the relevant law.”

Of course, that excludes situations where the automatism is self-induced, or situations in which, given what someone did, it was foreseeable that they could end up in a particular state. It excludes that, and so it should, because the defence is very narrow in what it refers to.

The Law Commission has made many important criticisms of the law as it stands. First is the criticism that it is technically deficient. We are distinguishing between the mental and physical elements of the crime, but that is not always possible. It is not easy to see possessing something that is illegal to possess purely as an act; there must be the intent to hold on to it, and it is not easy to make that distinction. Secondly, has the law really kept up with developments in medicine, psychology and psychiatry in how we classify mental illness? No, it has not. It has not changed substantially for more than 150 years. Bizarrely as well, this is not available in magistrates court. Why should it be that the defence is applicable in our Crown courts but not in magistrates? That is clearly a loophole that needs to be dealt with.

There is an argument that defendants can find themselves acquitted but stigmatised because of the word “insanity”, which is still used as it is central to the defence. In addition, and as was at the heart of my hon. Friend’s speech, how does the defence sit with the victim’s human rights? Like everyone else, the victim in these cases is entitled to the right to life—article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998—and where there has been a tragic death that article has been clearly violated.

There is also article 3 on inhuman and degrading treatment, and article 8 on the right to a private life. We really must ensure that the defence, as it is framed today with appropriate safeguards, is compatible with the victim’s human rights. One can understand the situation in the road traffic incidents described by my hon. Friend, where either automatism has ended up, it seems, with prosecutors not seeing the case as passing the evidence test or something has happened further down the line, with victims not being aware of why that had happened. That is a real issue.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

May I make a cynical point? A road traffic academic expert pointed out to me that it is ironic that the number of cases in which people plead automatism has risen almost exactly in parallel with the use of mobile phones in cars.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

There may well be a number of reasons for that; we may simply have more offences. However, I entirely take on board my hon. Friend’s point, and it would indeed reinforce the need for an understanding and an awareness of the defence and why certain cases are not being proceeded with or are not successful.

The other point I make to the Minister is about Parliament as it is at the moment. The Law Commission has papers about reform of the law—not just on automatism, but in many other areas too—that would not be partisan and would be likely to command widespread support. We have not had a vote in Parliament for the past month, so it seems that at this point in our parliamentary history, and when the Law Commission has made recommendations, there is room in the timetable for laws to be introduced. If this situation of so little substantive business continues, real thought ought to be given in Government to at least trying to use the time productively on matters that, while perhaps not partisan, would make a big difference to the lives of our constituents.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

I remind the Minister that he might want to allow the mover of the motion to wind up the debate.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 5:13 pm, 14th May 2019

I suspect I will, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate Mr Sheerman on securing this debate on automatism as a legal defence. I am conscious of his work in this area and across a range of aspects of the operation of the law, particularly regarding the impact on victims. I know that he has taken a particular interest in a number of tragic cases. Although he will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases, especially where charging decisions are concerned, I know his work in the area.

Given the limited examples of the use of automatism as a defence, it might be worth elaborating a little, as other hon. Members have, on the current law and its operation. I will also seek to share the Government’s general approach to reform of the law in this area, and the Law Commission’s.

Generally, automatism is a defence to a criminal charge where the defendant’s consciousness was so impaired that he or she was acting in a state of physical involuntariness. It is more than not intending something to happen; it is not being aware of those actions. There are two distinct types of automatism. First, there is insane automatism, which stems from an internal cause or disease of the mind. Where this occurs, the proper verdict is not guilty by reason of insanity. Secondly, there is sane or non-insane automatism, which stems from a cause other than a disease of the mind, an external cause that leads to a loss of control. Where this occurs, the proper verdict is not guilty. The hon. Member for Huddersfield suggested, and I think I am quoting him accurately, that there was an increasing tendency by clever lawyers to seek to use this defence, but I have to say that there is no evidence of that. He himself mentioned the stats, and this comes back to the statistical point, which I will touch on shortly. As always, the hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully, to highlight the issue that he believes is behind this.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

How do we know how many times the Crown Prosecution Service does not prosecute because it thinks it will not be able to get a conviction because of the use of automatism?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I will come back shortly to the two tests that the shadow Solicitor General mentioned. On the statistics point, it appears that automatism is rarely used as a successful defence, and that sane automatism, which is what most people assume that to be, is extremely rare because it is very hard to prove. However, Stuart C. McDonald also made the point about the statistics. It is a matter for the CPS, but we can take back to that service and to other agencies the question of examining whether there are better ways to identify trends and the statistical evidence bases underlying them. I do not have an answer now, but that is something we can take away and look into.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

This is an issue that I have raised before in other contexts. Sometimes we are told by the CPS that it has to look through the file of each case to pick up certain data, but in such cases, particularly where there are deaths, as there might be in a road traffic case, it would be useful to look at what data is collected and reviewed. I hope that the Minister will pass that on to the law officers who superintend the CPS.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am happy to do that, not least because in her previous ministerial role the now Solicitor General would have been taking this debate. I am sure that having prepared for it in advance, as she usually did, she will be well aware of the issue, and I am happy to raise it with her.

The distinction between the two types of automatism is important for reasons other than the verdicts. In insane automatism, the burden of proof is on the defendant to show that he or she did not know the nature of the act committed. However, in the case of non-insane automatism, the burden remains on the prosecution to satisfy a jury beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant has not had a total loss of control and is, therefore, guilty of the offence.

To illustrate that further, there is the example of incidents that occur as the result of hypo or hyperglycaemia. If a defendant argues that the act was caused by the administration of insulin leading to hypoglycaemia, that is an external factor and the defendant will be acquitted unless the prosecution can show this to be untrue. However, if the defendant argues that the incident was due to diabetes causing excessive blood sugar hyperglycaemia, that would be an internal factor and the onus would be on the defendant to prove, on the balance of probabilities supported by medical evidence, that he or she was not guilty by reason of insanity.

The cause of automatism can understandably be confusing to many. I will give an example that is possibly a reflection of how the law is interpreted and the difference between what is, in legal terms, the interpretation and what anyone else might read it as. For example, epilepsy is a disease of the mind. When an epileptic seizure results in an assault, for instance, a successful defence would be an insanity verdict. Of course, most people would not consider that an epileptic seizure amounted to insanity, but that is how the law would be interpreted in a narrow, legal context.

Acts committed while suffering from concussion, sleepwalking—which we have touched on—amnesia, and even post-traumatic stress disorder may amount to an automatism defence. As alluded to earlier, such cases rely heavily on medical evidence as to the nature and causes of the loss of control. Perhaps the most famous illustration of automatism was in the context of an example given in one of the leading cases, Hill v. Baxter in 1958—that of a driver who causes an accident after being stung in their cab by a swarm of bees.

I will cover two final points before ending my survey of the current law and moving on to the future. I know that the hon. Member for Huddersfield has a particular interest in driving offences in the context of this debate, although his interest goes wider than that. Automatism is a defence even against strict liability offences; I mention that because although that defence occurs infrequently, it is most commonly reported in relation to driving offences. Significantly, that defence applies even when the offence does not require intent, such as with dangerous driving.

As my hon. Friend Alex Chalk and others have highlighted, when automatism arises from prior fault or voluntary conduct, that usually—but not exclusively—means that the defendant was taking illegal drugs, or that alcohol was involved, for example. When a person is taking substances other than in accordance with medical direction, and the crime is one of basic intent such as an assault, the defence should fail if the substance taken is known to cause aggression or the consequences that caused the offence. It is not a defence to be completely out of it on drugs or due to alcohol, and as a result commit an offence, however unknowingly. Those questions, though, will often be left to the jury or to magistrates. It is worth stressing that the defence is much more narrowly drawn than many people might imagine.

Let me turn again to why the defence exists and briefly touch on the Scottish situation, which the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East alluded to. I understand that in Scotland the context is different, in that an automatism plea is treated as a denial of mens rea. In other words, if acting as an automaton, a person lacks the essential mental element of a crime and as a result should be acquitted of an offence. However, the Scottish courts have clarified that, for the defence of automatism to succeed, there must be a total alienation of reason that is caused by an external factor that was not self-induced or foreseeable. The internal versus external distinction therefore applies as a test in Scotland as it does in England, albeit in a slightly different form, and the defence will also fail if the defendant’s state is self-induced. Although the test of what amounts to insanity is different in Scotland from that in the jurisdiction of England and Wales, the defence—although it takes a slightly different approach—is none the less very similar in its application and consequences for defendants.

As I believe all who have spoken today have also said, I do not think that anyone would contend that a person who commits an act because of loss of control and through no fault of their own should be held liable for that offence. In such cases, it is also unlikely to be in the public interest to prosecute, as a conviction would not be secured. If there is doubt about whether the defendant contributed to their loss of control, then those questions may be tested in court. Of course, it is very difficult for innocent victims of these acts, who may themselves be injured or bereaved as a result of them, to accept that in law no one is to blame. It is particularly difficult for families of those who are killed, again through no fault of their own, by a person who was not in control of their actions. However, it remains unjust to punish someone for something they genuinely had no control over.

As was rightly highlighted by the shadow Solicitor General, Nick Thomas-Symonds, the code for Crown prosecutors is clear about its dual test. The public interest, and the evidence and likelihood of securing a conviction, are the tests that Crown prosecutors will consider when assessing whether a defence is likely to undermine one or other of those factors. In that context, the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned transparency, as did the hon. Member for Torfaen. I think both will be aware that our system seeks to make the decision to prosecute as transparent as possible, including through communication with victims and those victims having the right to challenge and review the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service. In those cases, they will have information about what in those two tests caused the charge to not proceed.

Let me turn to the future, and the Law Commission’s report and proposals about this area. The lack of clarity on automatism to which the shadow Solicitor General referred, and the complexity of the outdated law on the connected defence of insanity, led the Law Commission to conduct a scoping study in 2012 and issue a discussion paper in the following year. The Law Commission did not, however, produce a full set of recommendations on automatism or complete its work with a final report. It rightly recognised that, in the context of its broader work on the law around insanity as a defence, this was an important but small part of a much broader piece. In taking that work forward, its focus was on the “unfitness to plead” aspect, and it is therefore yet to produce for consideration qualified legislative proposals on automatism.

Although the Law Commission’s comments and proposals in the 2013 discussion document would narrow the automatism defence slightly, as has been said, it would not remove it. The proposed reforms sought to simplify the law, replacing the common-law defence with a statutory one, and have one defence that, if made out, would lead to a not guilty verdict rather than the two possible verdicts previously mentioned. The Government considered the initial discussion paper’s proposals, but concluded that they would be a very limited reform to an already rarely used defence.

We have no current plans to bring forward legislative proposals. However, that does not mean that we have ruled out making changes to the law, including the wider and related law on insanity and fitness to plead; we keep that area under review. The shadow Solicitor General tempts me into saying that if the Ministry of Justice wishes to use any legislative time, that would be a good use of it. As a Department, we are productive in legislation; we have been, and I suspect we will continue to be.

To conclude, I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield on drawing the attention of the House to this issue. It is, as I think he said, the first time in 11 years that it has been properly debated, and I am sure there will be Members who are hearing about this issue today for the first time. I thank all who have contributed to the discussion of this complex topic, and I hope I have set out the law as it stands and where the Government stand on it. Finally, the hon. Gentleman knows that we already have a meeting scheduled on a different topic. I enjoy my meetings with him, and if he wishes to add specific questions about this aspect of law to our next meeting, I am happy to consider them.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield 5:27 pm, 14th May 2019

I was lucky enough to have had my undergraduate and postgraduate education at the London School of Economics, whose motto is “To know the causes of things”. A few weeks ago, I had never heard of automatism at all. When it started cropping up in my consciousness, I thought, “This is the right place to bring it up, to see whether we can shed some light on it.” That is what we do well in Parliament.

I have been well served by the shadow Minister, the Minister, and those others who have contributed. We have shed some light on an important topic that many people knew little about, and I think this will go down as a historic debate. I hope we will come back to this issue, and that the improvements to the law that the Minister suggested might come about in the not too distant future.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered automatism as a legal defence.

Sitting adjourned.