Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the Criminal Law

Prof. Ian Freckelton1

1Law Faculty, University Of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that has penetrated public consciousness and is part of contemporary public parlance. However, the extent to which OCD and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) can constitute debilitating conditions that adversely affect most aspects of a person’s functioning and quality of life are not so well known, including as to how they can impair the capacity to give reasoned consideration to how people conduct themselves (including under pressure) and to the consequences of their actions. Relatively little scholarship exists about the legal repercussions of OCD and OCPD and, in particular, their potential relevance for the evaluation of both criminal responsibility and criminal culpability. This paper commences to redress that deficit, outlining contemporary clinical knowledge about the disorders that is relevant to the forensic context  and identifying important judgments by courts in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India which have dealt with the potential impact of  OCD and OCPD, in particular decisions at the sentencing phase of criminal proceedings. It raises issues in relation to impairment of accused person’s voluntariness and to the blameworthiness in the criminal context of persons with these conditions. It calls for better awareness of OCD and OCPD on the part of forensic mental health practitioners, criminal law practitioners and members of the judiciary.


Ian Freckelton is a Queen’s Counsel in full-time practice throughout Australia. He is a Professorial Fellow in Law and Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, an Adjunct Professor of Forensic Medicine at Monash University, a judge of the Supreme Court of Nauru, and a member of Victoria’s Coronial Council and the Bar Council of Victoria. He is a past bi-national and Victorian President of ANZAPPL. Ian is the Editor of the Journal of Law and Medicine and the Founding Editor and Editor-at-Large of Psychiatry, Psychology and Law. In 2021 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to law and the legal profession, including to health, medicine, and technology.

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