Edward Leigh – 1986 Speech on Unfitness To Plead

Below is the text of the speech made by Edward Leigh, the then Conservative MP for Gainsborough and Horncastle, in the House of Commons on 16 April 1986.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the criminal law in relation to defendants who are unfit to plead; and for connected purposes.

The Bill is prompted by the case of a constituent of mine, Mr. Glen Pearson, a 32–year-old deaf mute with few communication skills, who was alleged to have stolen £5.40 and three light bulbs and ordered to be detained in custody for an indefinite period by Lincoln Crown court. He was released three months later, after a national outcry. No ordinary person would be treated in that way by the courts.

Why did it happen to Glen Pearson? He was found, rightly, to be unfit to plead. From that moment he was caught in the grip of an infernal machine, as remorseless in its purpose as anything out of a Greek tragedy. Under section 5(4) of the Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act 1964, if a person is found to be unfit to plead the judge has no choice—I emphasise that he has no choice—but to send him to the hospital specified by the Secretary of State. Moreover, the judge must direct that a person so committed to hospital shall be detained as if he were held under sections 37 to 41 of the Mental Health Act 1983.

For an obviously insane and dangerous person the law is logical, because those sections of the Mental Health Act make it clear that a hospital order can be made only in the case of an insane person if very strict criteria are met. For example, two medical reports have to be furnished to the court, and the court has to be satisfied that the mental disorder is of such a nature that it warrants detention for treatment. [Interruption.] Under section 41 of the Act the court, being satisfied with regard to the offender’s past and that it is necessary to protect the public from serious harm, can order the defendant’s detention without limit of time.

It will come as a great surprise that while my constituent was detained indefinitely as if those criteria applied to him, the court did not and could not consider whether in fact they did apply to him once it had found that he was unfit to plead. As two psychiatric reports and one psychologist’s report showed later, Glen Pearson was not insane and he was not a serious danger to the public, but he was treated as if he was—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has a right to be heard.

Mr. Leigh

I am able to illustrate the extraordinary clumsiness of the law in this area by considering the hypothetical case of an Amazonian Indian visiting this country who is incapable of speaking English and whose language nobody can translate. Assuming that no interpreter could be found and that he was accused of stealing 6p, if he were brought before the courts of this land they would have no choice but to detain him indefinitely in a prison hospital.

My Bill seeks to amend the law so that a person found unfit to plead will be detained in a prison hospital only if the strict criteria of insanity are met. Otherwise, he will be remanded in custody or on bail with conditions, as appropriate, until such time as he is fit to plead. Remand to prison custody would be appropriate only if the offence were of a serious nature and the defendant’s unfitness was outside the scope of the mental health provisions. I must make it clear, therefore, that the Bill in no way lessens the protection available to the public; it simply widens the powers available to the courts.

The Bill provides for the regular review of unfitness, there is no similar provision in the law as it stands. The Bill provides for the case to be brought to a conclusion within a specified period. Mr. Paul Bacon, the solicitor who represented Glen Pearson on this occasion, once represented a client who had to wait seven years for trial. When the court was finally persuaded to bring the matter to trial, it was found that the police had lost the evidence. Lastly, my Bill provides that a case of unfitness should be allowed to be heard in summary as well as in Crown proceedings.

It would seem strange to a foreign legislator, observing our proceedings today, that, sandwiched between questions to the Secretary of State on the very lifeblood of the nation and a debate to be initiated by the Prime Minister on a matter of world crisis, the House should grant to an unknown Back Bencher the right to inform Parliament of the trials the tribulations of an even more unknown deaf mute from a small market town in north Lincolnshire, of which the House knows little. But I believe that the procedure and forbearance of the House in allowing me to do this reflects no more than Parliament’s knowledge and wisdom, accumulated over centuries, from Hampden’s time to the present day, that out of the affairs of small men great issues are often determined.

Moulded by the wisdom of our glorious Judaeo-Christian tradition, we in this country appreciate—as it is appreciated to the same extent nowhere else—that anyone, however reviled or lowly or disabled, has a right to be treated fairly and that anyone has the right to be considered innocent before guilt is proved. It is in that spirit that I ask the leave of the House to introduce this Bill to cover the one small area of the law that I have described which is clearly unfair, inappropriate and in need of reform.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Michael Brown, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. David Ashby, Mr. Joe Ashton, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Mr. Tom Clarke and Mr. Douglas Hogg.