James Rudman killed his wife by stabbing her 20 times, but under the terms of a Mental Health Act order imposed on him at his trial last August, neither health officials nor the police have the right to detain him once he has been away from the hospital for four weeks.
Rudman, 40, was sent to a secure unit at the Towers Hospital in Leicester after pleading not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, when he killed his wife, Susan, in November 1991.
At the time, Mr Justice McCullough ordered that Rudman be detained under Section 37 of the Mental Health Act 1983, a section which places an emphasis on treatment and which must be renewed regularly, rather than Section 41, which emphasises secure detention and which has no time limit.
Health officials insisted yesterday that Rudman posed no danger to the public, but admitted they would be powerless to detain him if he remained at large beyond 28 August. He absconded on 1 August during an unescorted walk around the hospital grounds.
The Mental Health Act states that: 'A patient shall not be taken into custody under this Section (37) after the expiration of the period of 28 days beginning on the first day of his absence without leave. A patient who has not returned or been taken into custody under this section . . . shall cease to be liable to be detained at the expiration of that period.'
Dr James Earp, clinical director of the Trent regional forensic service, said: 'Once he has been away from the hospital and clinical treatment for that length of time, the order against him lapses.
'He could be re-sectioned only on the basis of fresh evidence, not on past offences. And you would have to find him first.'
Last night, Kathleen Pole, Susan Rudman's mother, called for a change in the law.
'It can't be right for the man who killed my daughter to get away because of a loophole like this,' she said. 'As far as I am concerned Rudman has killed once and he could do it again.'
Ian McCartney, a Labour spokesman on mental health, said he would be pushing for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Rudman's disappearance.
'We must find out why the judge did not impose Section 41 restrictions in this case, since it is extremely rare in homicide cases for restricted sentences not to be imposed,' Mr McCartney added.
Ian Bynoe, legal director of MIND, the mental health charity, said the 28- day rule would not have applied if Rudman had been detained under Section 41, but he argued that extensive psychiatric assessment would have been undertaken before the judge imposed the less restrictive Section 37 order.
A spokesman for the the Department of Health said that no figures were kept on the number of mentally ill criminals who had used the loophole to get out of hospital.
- More about:
- Department Of Health And Social Issues
- Middlesex Hospital
- Royal Free Hospital