Insanity defence reform – can empirical research influence legal change?

Prof. Ronnie Mackay1

1Leicester De Montfort Law School, Leicester, United Kingdom

The insanity defence continues to pose fundamental problems which have often led to reform or a refusal to adopt change. This presentation will discuss how reform initiatives have often proceeded with little or no input from any empirical research to inform the process, as occurred during the post-Hinckley period in the United States of America. It will also comment on how the lack of empirical research may have led to a lack of reform, as in New Zealand, or to a tightening up of the disposal regime for insanity acquitees as recently occurred in Canada.

It will be argued in this presentation that empirical research into the defence of insanity has a role to play and can make an important contribution to the reform process. As such it will review empirical research into the operation of the defence of insanity in England and Wales in the context of the Law Commission for England and Wales’ reform recommendations and assess whether research of this type can influence legal change.


Ronnie Mackay is Professor of Criminal Policy and Mental Health at Leicester De Montfort Law School and has written and researched on mentally abnormal offenders for many years. He is the author of Mental Condition Defences in the Criminal Law published by Oxford University Press together with numerous other scholarly publications. He was a member of the Parole Board of England and Wales from 1995 to 2001. He has acted as a consultant to the Law Commission for England and Wales for whom he has conducted empirical studies on unfitness to plead, the insanity defence, diminished responsibility, provocation and infanticide. His empirical research into diminished responsibility was cited recently by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in Golds v R (2016) EWCA Crim 748.

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