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Criminal law and Mental Health: An Introduction

Maitreyi Misra talks about the different stages where mental health of the accused intersects with law in a criminal trial.
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Hi, my name is Maitreyi Misra, and I head the work on mental health and criminal justice at Project 39A, a criminal justice program at the National Law University, Delhi. Welcome to the lecture series on forensic mental health and criminal justice. Over the next few weeks, we will be discussing the relevance of mental health within the criminal justice system and the various stages where it intersects with criminal law. Specifically, the course will cover the legal and forensic mental health aspects in three broad areas- fitness to stand trial, the defense of insanity and the role of mental health in capital punishment cases.
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This course will focus on Indian law and incorporate a competitive element by including discussions under Australian law as well as international law. An inclusive and effective criminal justice system would require that the needs and vulnerabilities of persons with mental disabilities are respected, protected and accommodated within the justice system. This will ensure access to justice for all. Now, before we begin, I would like to quickly outline the definitions of mental health, mental illness and intellectual disability as we will be dealing with these concepts in the coming lectures. The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of well-being in which the individual realizes their own abilities and where they can cope with the normal stresses of life.
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Under Indian law, definitions of mental illness and intellectual disability are found in the Mental Health Care Act, 2017 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, respectively. Under the Mental Health Care Act, mental illness is defined as a substantial disorder of thinking, mood, perception, orientation or memory that grossly impairs judgment, behaviour, capacity to recognize reality or the ability to meet the ordinary demands of life. Intellectual disability is defined as a condition characterized by significant limitations, both in intellectual functioning, which includes reasoning, reasoning, learning, problem solving and in adaptive behaviour, which covers a range of everyday social and practical skills.
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In this first lecture, I want to briefly deal with the principles of criminal justice that are interlinked with questions of mental health and then broadly outline the stages in a criminal trial where these questions become relevant. The fundamental right to fair trial is the first and most obvious principle. This is also the very principle that is most likely affected when mental health concerns are overlooked or neglected as persons with mental illness are caught in a system that is not built to accommodate their needs. Questions of mental health also have a bearing on determining the guilt of the individual since mental state at the time of the offence is an important consideration in criminal law.
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It is also relevant for determining the degree of responsibility that is to be attributed to a person for their acts. Often ignored but equally important is the right to health and life, which is impacted when persons with mental health concerns are caught in the criminal justice system and remain untreated. I think we can all agree that prisons are the wrong place for many people in need of mental health treatment, since the criminal justice system emphasizes deterrence and punishment rather than treatment and care. These principles and questions of mental health of the accused are relevant at the following stages of a criminal trial.
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First is the stage where questions regarding the accused persons, fitness or unfitness to stand trial can be raised. These claims can be raised at the beginning of the trial or at any time during the trial. Fitness or competence to stand trial pertains to the mental condition of an accused at the time of trial. Second is the defense of insanity, varying terms are used to refer to this defense, such as not guilty by reason of insanity, mental disorder defense or defense of mental impairment. In any criminal case, the accused must have mens rea i.e. a guilty mind, in order to be held criminally responsible.
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Under the defense, what is to be demonstrated is that at the time of the offense, the mental faculties of the accused were impaired to an extent which prevented them from forming the requisite intent and mental state. Finally, is the consideration of mental health at the time of sentencing. We will focus on the death penalty framework both at the time of sentencing as well as at the time of execution. During sentencing, the mental health of the accused influences the sentence received while in the later stages, it is largely the impact of the death sentence on the mental health of the accused that comes under examination.
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In death penalty cases, a trial judge has the option of imposing life imprisonment or death sentence, and they must look at mitigating and aggravating circumstances before imposing the punishment. Under Indian as well as international law, mental health is relevant at this stage. At the execution stage, mental health concerns are relevant in determining whether executing a person who has a mental illness or a mental disability would be a violation of the right to life and dignity. In the upcoming weeks, we will deal with each of these areas in greater detail, both from a legal perspective as well as a forensic mental health perspective. I hope you will find the sessions useful and interesting. Thank you for watching this video.

What are the different reasons for taking into account the mental health of the accused during a trial process?

Is it only because persons with mental health concerns are vulnerable, or are their other rights and concepts involved in these considerations?

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Forensic Mental Health and Criminal Justice

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