Fighting for the right to break out of Broadmoor

After two decades inside, Albert Haines is making legal history in his bid to be free. Jerome Taylor meets him

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The patient walks into the room looking nervous. He glances furtively at the ring of chairs in front but only sits down once permission has been sought from hospital staff. He's not used making his own decisions and he rarely gets an opportunity to meet strangers.

"Can I have a drink?" he asks, extending a hand to shake. "I'll need it to talk. I do nothing but talk on the ward. You've probably heard I'm excitable. I prefer the word passionate."

Albert Haines has been waiting a long time to tell his story. For the best part of 25 years he has been detained under the Mental Health Act. Much of that time has been spent in Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire, home to some of Britain's most dangerous individuals, including the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and the serial killer Robert Napper.

The offence that landed the 52-year-old behind bars seems mild compared with the brutal crimes committed by some of his Broadmoor neighbours. In May 1986 he walked into a hospital carrying a small knife and a machete, threatening staff before giving himself up. No one was hurt and later that summer he pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted wounding. He has not seen the outside world since.

"I know it was a serious offence, that it could have gone either way," he says, his hands wrapped tight around a pair of spectacles. "I am a confrontational person, that's right, but I'm not dangerous." Mr Haines' dilemma rests precisely on that. There is no doubt he has served a sentence far beyond his so-called "index offence", but until medical professionals are confident that he no longer poses a threat to society he will continue to be detained.

Next week, after a long court battle, he will appear in central London for the first mental health tribunal ever held in public. Normally these tribunals, which decide whether someone should continue to be sectioned, are held behind closed doors for reasons of patient confidentiality. Mr Haines's landmark legal case will give the public a highly unusual insight into the workings of the system.

More than 100,000 mental health tribunals have been conducted in the past seven years, but only 10 applications were made for an open hearing and only one was granted – and that was later withdrawn. Broadmoor fought the decision to hold Mr Haines's tribunal in public, arguing that to do so would be stressful for him and not in his best interests. But the Upper Tribunal disagreed after being persuaded that the right to open justice must be made available to anyone with the competence to waive their right to a closed hearing.

Mr Haines, who prefers to go by the name Lazlo, is a tall man with sunken eyes and salt and pepper hair. He is courteous, but anxious to have his say. In the room with him is a nurse, the hospital's clinical director and a press officer from West London Mental Health NHS Trust.

"I don't want to be involved with mental healthcare any more," he says adamantly. "I want to be able to recover. I can't support a system that bullies you into being who they want you to be. I don't dispute I have problems, but I dispute that I have mental health problems."

He believes his time in Broadmoor has done little to help him and is particularly unhappy that his diagnoses have frequently changed, along with his medication. Doctors had classified him as having a mental illness and psychopathic disorder, but in 2008 they changed the diagnosis to just a psychopathic disorder.

His background is tragically typical of many inmates at secure hospitals. He was sexually abused as a child and was bounced around the care system. In his teens he was in and out of hospitals which, at the time, were often unable to treat complex mental health problems.

The authorities at Broadmoor admit that it is unusual for patients to remain with them so long. Only one in 20 of the 230 or so men held there have been patients for more than two decades. Most stay around six years before moving to less secure units or, more often than you might think, out into the free world.

Mr Haines's tribunal must decide whether he still poses a risk. He insists that he has not been involved in violence apart from the fights that inevitably break out in a facility that houses highly dangerous people. "I've had the odd fight, I'm not an angel, but I'm allowed in law to defend myself," he says. "It's the nature of Broadmoor that fights do happen."

In the work canteen outside the hospital walls, Kate Luscombe, Mr Haines' lawyer, who has visited him every fortnight for the best part of three years, says he hopes the hearing will "allow an opportunity for public scrutiny of his case and maintain public confidence in the administration of justice in mental health cases".