5 minutes with… Dr Emily Glorney

Society representative on the Law Commission report on fitness to plead tests.

Dr Emily Glorney (Royal Holloway, University of London), a member of the British Psychological Society Division of Forensic Psychology (DFP) committee, was one of two psychologists involved as a Society representative during consultation on the Law Commission report on fitness to plead tests. Currently two doctors, including a psychiatrist, advise judges on a defendant’s readiness to stand trial. The Commission recommended that psychologists be involved in wider tests to assess defendants’ mental fitness when facing criminal charges.

The independent body, which reviews laws in England and Wales, said existing rules to decide whether or not a defendant was mentally fit were ‘out of date, misunderstood and inconsistently applied’. Glorney, who represented the BPS alongside Chartered Psychologist Dr Ian Gargan, spoke to us about their involvement and the potential future of these tests.

Where did your interest in forensic psychology come from?
My interest in forensic psychology began about 20 years ago when, as part of my undergraduate degree programme, I took on a clinical research placement concerned with the needs of people with severe and enduring mental illness who were in touch with community mental health teams. I became interested in the participants’ experiences of mental illness and, for some, the relationship between these experiences and their violent behaviour.

After learning more about the relationship between mental disorder and offending behaviour through MSc Forensic Psychology study, I embarked on research and practice focused on forensic mental health. My interest in the Law Commission consultation on unfitness to plead seemed to be a natural extension of these interests - thinking about how courts might facilitate improved psychosocial functioning to support a fair trial.

Can you tell me about your involvement with the Law Commission report?
One aspect of the DFP committee’s strategy is to promote the value of psychology to the legal and criminal justice system. The Law Commission’s consultation process explored reform of the legal test and the procedure for assessment of unfitness to plead. These issues were discussed in detail at a multidisciplinary symposium in June 2014, attended by law professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and representatives from government and third sector organisations.

The law professionals debated the legal test, then there was interdisciplinary discussion of the screening and assessment of a defendant and also the legal procedure for unfit accused. I made representations to these last two domains. Firstly, that for defendants who are fit to plead yet have difficulty engaging with the trial process there should be a statutory entitlement to support of a Registered Intermediary, in line with an assessment focus on functional capacity for trial proceedings and the context of the individual in the court proceedings. The aim of such provision would be to support the cognitive and psychosocial functioning of a defendant through the trial proceedings, in order to facilitate a fair trial. Secondly, I represented that psychologists, considered by the court to be adequately qualified and with sufficient experience, may provide testimony regarding assessment and fitness to plead.

Why should psychologists be involved when assessing fitness to plead?
It is clear that psychology has grown and become more prominent in the legal and criminal justice process since the introduction of the Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act in 1964. In practice, psychologists already complete assessments of cognitive and social functioning in order to advise courts as to a defendant’s level of functioning against the criteria set for assessment of fitness to plead.

However, legally, this report could not stand alone as an opinion on fitness to plead; the view of the psychologist might be incorporated into a report by a medical doctor as per the evidential requirement. Not only is this a potentially inefficient way of managing trial proceedings, but the evidential requirement does not give due credibility to the professional opinion of the psychologist. Psychologists are trained and skilled in trying to make sense of the complex interplay between person and environment, in addition to theory and good practice in assessment of complex constructs such as psychological functioning. I think it makes good sense for the evidential requirement to be relaxed so that psychologists considered by the court to be adequately qualified and with sufficient experience may provide testimony regarding assessment and fitness to plead.

What are the next steps?
We’re really pleased that the Law Commission has made a key recommendation for legal reform, the relaxing of the evidential requirement. If the recommendations are accepted then this means that one of the two required experts to advise the court as to a defendant’s fitness to plead could be a registered psychologist. This offers professional recognition of and due credit to the expert advice that psychologists, of whichever ‘Division’ or specialisation, provide to criminal courts. This might seem like a small victory for psychology, but big gains can come from little steps.

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