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Insanity and automatism - a call for evidence

The Law Commission is asking how, in the criminal law of England and Wales, the defences of insanity and automatism are working, if at all.

The current rules that govern the insanity defence date from 1843. They have been widely criticised for a number of reasons: 

  • the law lags behind psychiatric understanding, and this partly explains why, in practice, the defence appears to be underused and medical professionals do not always apply the correct legal test 
  • the label of “insane” is outdated as a description of those with mental illness, and simply wrong as regards those who have learning disabilities or learning difficulties, or those with epilepsy 
  • the case law on insane and non-insane automatism is incoherent and produces results that run counter to common-sense 

Despite the many criticisms, there is very little evidence to show that the defence causes significant difficulties in practice. With this scoping exercise, the Commission is asking judges, lawyers, psychiatrists and other professionals with experience of working in this area whether the current law causes problems in application in practice, and if so, the extent of those problems.

The scoping paper is available on the Commission’s website:
www.lawcom.gov.uk. Contributors can respond online at: https://consult.justice.gov.uk/law-commission/insanity-and-automatism

Notes for Editors
1. The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all the law of England and Wales under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.

2. For more details on this project, visit

3. For all press queries please contact:
Phil Hodgson, Head of External Relations 020 3334 0230
Jackie Samuel 020 3334 0216

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