Insanity and Automatism

Closed 17 Oct 2012

Opened 18 Jul 2012


The insanity defence in England and Wales is founded on nineteenth century legal concepts which have not kept pace with developments in medicine and psychiatry. Various bodies have reviewed the law and recommended reform but the substance of the defence has remained unchanged, and so the faults persist. There is now a greater recognition of the difficulties the criminal justice system faces in dealing with people with mental illness and learning disabilities and there is a growing pressure for reform.

The defence of automatism is so closely related to that of insanity that it would make no sense to attempt to reform one without the other.

We are convinced, on the basis of our research to date, the vast wealth of academic literature and previous reform proposals, that there are significant problems with the law when examined from a theoretical perspective. There is, however, less evidence that the defences cause significant difficulties in practice. The empirical data suggests that there are only a very small number of successful insanity pleas each year (around 30).

We have no data on how often the plea is considered by practitioners as a possibility or entered formally at trial. We have no data whatsoever on the use of the automatism defence. This scoping exercise therefore aims to discover whether the current law causes problems in application in practice and, if so, the extent of those problems.

Why your views matter

This scoping exercise seeks to discover how in the criminal law of England and Wales the defences of insanity and automatism are working, if at all.

On receipt of that evidence we will consider how best to take the project forward to ensure that the law in practice is fit for purpose in the 21st century and reflects the vastly changed approach to people with mental illness.

Other ways to respond
If you prefer not to complete this scoping exercise online, other ways of responding are given on the Insanity and Automatism project page.


  • Mental health professionals
  • Health professionals
  • Voluntary organisations
  • Charities
  • Government departments
  • Legal professionals
  • Judiciary
  • Police and law enforcement professionals


  • Mental health
  • Criminal justice