Legal system 'denies justice to mentally ill victims of crime'

MPs to investigate claims that CPS lets down people whose evidence is unfairly seen as unreliable
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The Independent Online

MPs are to investigate allegations that victims of crime who suffer from mental health problems are being denied justice by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The justice select committee will hear evidence from campaigners about the high proportion of prosecutions that are not pursued when the victim or witness has a psychological problem.

The claims may be reinforced by the result of a landmark High Court ruling this week in which judges will decide whether the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) was wrong to drop charges against a man, accused of biting the ear off a folk singer, because the victim suffered from a mental illness.

The 23-year-old victim was attacked in front of several witnesses in a café on New Year's Eve, 2005. The attack happened after he protested about several men smoking cannabis in the north London café where he was performing. A man was charged with grievous bodily harm and witness intimidation, but, on the morning of the trial, the CPS decided not to proceed with the case.

The victim's lawyers argued the decision was wrong, irrational and a breach of his human rights. If the judge rules in favour of the claimant it will have major ramifications for the CPS, DPP and victims of crime whose cases have been unfairly dropped.

Saimo Chahal, of Bindmans solicitors, who acts for the victim, said: "I decided to act for him because his case was so compelling. He had a strong case but it had been dealt with very badly by the CPS, and he was left completely disillusioned with the justice system.

"This case highlights vividly the problems that most people with disabilities, mental health problems or psychological issues experience when they try to access the criminal justice system. Defendants take advantage of this and put them through a difficult and distressing time. The CPS does nothing to protect vulnerable people in this situation and instead of supporting the victim they can end up siding with the defence in undermining vulnerable victims. No wonder so few cases ever get off the ground or reach a successful conclusion. It is high time this changed."

Research by the charity Mind revealed serious flaws in the way the police, the CPS and lawyers served victims and witnesses with mental health problems. A 2007 survey found 71 per cent of respondents who had mental health problems had been the victim of crime in the preceding two years. Sixty per cent of those who had reported a crime said neither the police nor lawyers took the crime seriously because of their illness. Few cases ever made it to court.

Paul Farmer, Mind's chief executive, said: "The stigma and misunderstanding around mental distress means that the criminal justice system fails to probe whether a person's mental health might actually affect someone's testimony or not. Instead evidence from people with mental health problems can be automatically deemed 'unreliable', which can stop cases ever reaching court.

"A victim's mental health history can be used against them to discredit their character in much the same way that a woman's sexual history can be used against them in rape cases.

"The CPS has a huge influence over how the whole system works. We found evidence of cases dropped by the police because they thought prosecutors would not think the case was worth pursuing. "The CPS has a responsibility to tackle this injustice."