Tim Baldwin of Garden Court Chambers acted for the claimant, Teresa Maher, led by Dan Squires KC of Matrix Chambers. Counsel instructed by Jag Bahra of Saunders Law.
The High Court has handed down a judgment aiming to strengthen the rights of victims of serious crimes committed by mental health patients, as well as underline the importance of the principle of open justice.
The case was brought by Teresa Maher, supported by her daughter and family. Ms Maher’s son Kyle was killed in 2017, aged just 21. At the time Kyle was living in supported accommodation in South London. His killer, a man named Richard Wilson-Michael, lived in the same house, and after an argument a few days prior, ambushed him late at night, repeatedly stabbing him in an unprovoked and frenzied attack.
During his criminal trial in August 2017, Mr Wilson-Michael was convicted of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. He was found to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time and so rather than being sent to prison, he was given a Hospital Order and Restriction Order under sections 37 and 41 of the Mental Health Act 1983.
In February 2021 - just four years after the offence - the Mental Health Tribunal decided to discharge Mr Wilson-Michael into the community.
Why was this case brought?
Ms Maher was alarmed that her son’s killer had been released so soon after committing such a violent crime, and was terrified that he may harm someone again. She had received nothing to satisfy her that Mr Wilson-Michael had understood the consequences of his actions or that he was remorseful for what he had done. When she asked for a copy of the reasons for the decision to release him, the Tribunal told her that victims were not entitled to reasons for its decisions.
The Tribunal rules also meant that as a victim, Ms Maher was not a party to the case and was given no real involvement in the process. Her family could not submit a Victim Personal Statement setting out the impact of Mr Wilson-Michael’s crime, and they were not entitled to appeal the decision. Instead, the family were met with a wall of silence – the Tribunal did nothing to recognise their status as victims of Mr Wilson-Michael’s serious crimes.
The Tribunal operates in contrast to the Parole Board which, following the case of DSD v Parole Board, which concerned the release of ‘black cab rapist’ John Worboys, changed its rules to require the Parole Board to provide a summary of reasons for its decision to victims, along with other rights that give victims a stake in the process.
What the judgment says
The High Court’s judgment confirms that the Tribunal was operating an unlawful blanket policy of never providing reasons for its judgments to victims. When the issue was considered by the Tribunal’s Deputy Chamber President a year later, that decision was also unlawful because it failed to correctly balance Mr Wilson-Michael’s right to privacy with Ms Maher’s rights and the principles of open justice. The Judge commented that the decision “did not engage with the purpose of the open justice principle which is to both assist in justice being done through transparency and also to enable the public to have confidence in the system”.
The Judge also observed that “the approach of the FTT is something of an outlier… Suspicion and mistrust thrives when accurate information is not made available to the public about matters which affect them”.
The judgment also confirms that in failing to provide reasons for its judgment, the Tribunal breached Ms Maher’s rights under Articles 14 and 8 of the Human Rights Act. The Tribunal had not demonstrated there was a lawful justification for the stark difference in treatment of victims by the Tribunal and by the Parole Board, and this amounted to unlawful discrimination which interfered with her right to respect for her family life.
What are the implications of the judgment?
The Tribunal will now have to reconsider its refusal to provide Ms Maher with the reasons (or a summary of the reasons) for its decision to discharge Mr Wilson-Michael into the community. It has emphasised that the Tribunal should have paid closer attention to whether this could be done in such a way that balanced Mr Wilson-Michael’s right to privacy/confidentiality with Ms Maher’s rights as a victim – rather than simply stating that the former should prevail unless in exceptional circumstances.
The Tribunal has already indicated that it intends to update its Practice Guidance to make it clear that victims are in fact entitled to request reasons when a patient is discharged.
The Government has also indicated in a consultation that it supports proposals to allow victims to provide a Victim Personal Statement when a patient is being considered for discharge. This would bring the Tribunal’s practice closer in line with the Parole Board.
Ms Maher, supported by her daughter, said the following:
“We brought this case because the way the Tribunal treated us as victims was appalling. The way they refused to give us any information was disrespectful and undignified and it’s unbelievable that the Tribunal has so far been treating all bereaved families like this whenever releasing a patient.
We recognise that mentally unwell people need treatment. But when a patient has committed such a serious crime the government owes it to victims to explain why they are deemed safe to be released so soon afterwards. Courts shouldn’t be allowed to operate in secret when there’s so much at stake.
We hope this judgment brings some balance to the system and families in our position can start to understand why these decisions are being made.”
Following this ruling, updated Practice Guidance on Procedure for Handling Representations from Victims in the Mental Health Jurisdiction of the Health, Education and Social Care Chamber was issued on 11 September 2023, see here. The Guidance states the intention is to 'implement the ruling in that matter to ensure that going forward victims’ representations are considered as part of the open justice framework identified in that judgment.'