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Challenges in the courtroom

Learn about common challenges experienced by experts during assessing accused persons and presenting their evidence to the court.
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Hello, everyone, I’m Dr. Bhavika Vajawat, I’m working as a senior resident in forensic psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, NIMHANS Bangalore. In this video, we will be discussing the practical aspects associated with insanity assessment, such as the numbers, the challenges, courtroom experiences, and the way forward. Let us look at the utilization of insanity defense. A study reviewed the High Court cases in India between 2007-2017. There were 102 cases, 18 cases were acquitted under Section 84, IPC. There were several factors associated with the success of the insanity plea. These were the verdict of the lower court, documentary evidence of a mental illness prior to the crime, and the report of the psychiatrist.
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Looking at the experience from NIMHANS. A retrospective chart review to assess the legal status of patients between 2003-2006 was conducted. 125 patients charged under Section 302, IPC with a diagnosis of a primary mental illness were included in this study. 13 out of the 125 were acquitted and three out of the 125 that is, 2.4% of these individuals were acquitted on the grounds of insanity defense. Now let us discuss the courtroom experience of an expert. An expert witness, assists the court in reaching its decision. It often becomes difficult for an expert witness to explain the nuances and the grey areas of the case due to the black and white approach expected from him or her.
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Now, each mental illness is unique and has varied presentations and implications. Therefore, it lacks generalizability. Here we discuss some of the challenges faced by a mental health expert while preparing the insanity assessment report. First of all, the terminology used in the law, such as idiot, lunatic, etc., is outdated and not in keeping with the Mental Health Act, 2017. Second, there is a significant delay in referrals, sometimes even up to several years , and in the absence of collateral information, it becomes extremely challenging to prepare a comprehensive and accurate report because of the retrospective approach involved in the assessment. The burden of proof lies on the person with mental illness.
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Generally, it becomes extremely difficult for this individual to lead his legal fight in the absence of adequate psychosocial support. Also, it is required that the individual invokes the insanity defense in the lower courts itself. However, owing to the low legal literacy rates in the country, this becomes challenging. The approach used in insanity defense assessments is generally categorical. Moving to more alternate forms of approach like diminished responsibility might be considered. Most of these assessments are based on the reasoning and cognition of the individual, and there is no bearing on the affect of the person. It is widely known that the mood of an individual might overpower his reasoning and cognition.
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Also, the quantification of mental illness suffered by an individual is usually done for the purpose of disability and availing its benefit, a score of disability would not correlate with applicability of Section 84, IPC. So these are some of the future directions. A timely referral would facilitate assessments that might be more accurate. Derogatory and outdated terminologies need to be changed. For example, ‘idiot’ or ‘mentally retarded’ needs to be replaced with intellectual disability, lunatic needs to be replaced by a person with mental illness. Systematic efforts from the state and the stakeholders need to be made to facilitate collateral information.
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Transitioning from a simple certificate which is generally of five to six lines to a more comprehensive report to obtain the nuances and the basis of the opinion needs to be made. Patients with mental illness usually have poor social support systems. The allegation of a crime might further weaken their support system. Therefore, the facilitation of free legal aid services in the prisons is vital to empower them and it is a legal obligation. Thank you.

In this video, Dr Vajawat discusses in detail the many challenges that experts face when preparing and presenting their opinion in insanity defense claims. From a forensic psychiatrist’s point of view, she also suggests ways in which the processes of referrals, questions asked, and the presentation of the expert opinion in insanity defense claims could be made better and more sensitive.

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Forensic Mental Health and Criminal Justice

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