R v M’NAGHTEN

Jury instruction for the defence of insanity dates back as far as the common law of England; however, in 1843 the time had arrived for a revision and clarification of what qualified as insanity, and how best to grant the jurors scope to reach a credible conclusion, as was shown in this now landmark case.

In January of that year, Daniel M’Naghten was indicted before the Middlesex Central Criminal Court on grounds that he had wilfully and with malice aforethought, murdered another man when shooting him in the back with a pistol.

During the trial, medical evidence presented was such that suggested a man was of unsound mind when afflicted with morbid delusions capable of rendering him unable to determine right from wrong at the time his act was committed, to which the defendant claimed such weakness as a defence.

When instructing the jury in The Queen v M’Naghten, Tindal LJ expressed that:

“The question to be determined is, whether at the time the act in question was committed, the prisoner had or had not the use of his understanding, so as to know that he was doing a wrong or wicked act. If the jurors should be of opinion that the prisoner was not sensible, at the time he committed it, that he was violating the laws both of God and man, then he would be entitled to a verdict in his favour: but if, on the contrary, they were of opinion that when he committed the act he was in a sound state of mind, then their verdict must be against him.”

The Queen v M’Naghten

Upon which, the jury returned a not guilty verdict and the matter was escalated to the House of Lords in order to explore both the existing legal position on insanity, along with the optimal and most effective use of jury instruction where cases required it.

By addressing a number of esteemed judges, the House requested clarification on the following five questions:

  1. What was the common law position on crimes involving insane delusions under a variation of circumstances ranging from simple offences to revenge or acts of public interest?
  2. What were the correct jury instructions in such matters?
  3. How much freedom should be given to jurors when assessing the defendant’s state of mind?
  4. Should a defendant shown to be delusional be acquitted of whatever crime is under discussion?
  5. Can a medical professional provide a credible and measured opinion of a defendant whose acts occurred both out of sight and mind of those providing such testimony?

To which, the judges tentatively answered:

1. “To render a person irresponsible for crime on account of unsoundness of mind, the unsoundness should, according to the law as it has long been understood and held, be such as rendered him incapable of knowing right from wrong.”

2. “[E]very man is to be presumed to be sane, and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his crimes, until the contrary be proved to their satisfaction; and that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

3. “[T]here are no terms which the Judge is by law required to use. They should not be inconsistent with the law as above stated, but should be such as, in the discretion of the Judge, are proper to assist the jury in coming to a right conclusion as to the guilt of the accused.”

4.  “[I]f under the influence of his delusion he supposes another man to be in the act of attempting to take away his life, and he kills that man, as he supposes, in self-defence, he would be exempt from punishment. If his delusion was that the deceased had inflicted a serious injury to his character and fortune, and he killed him in revenge for such supposed injury, he would be liable to punishment.”

5. “[T]he medical man, under the circumstances supposed, cannot in strictness be asked his opinion in the terms above stated, because each of those questions involves the determination of the truth of the facts deposed to, which it is for the jury to decide, and the questions are not mere questions upon a matter of science, in which case such evidence is admissible. But where the facts are admitted or not disputed, and the question becomes substantially one of science only, it may be convenient to allow the question to be put in that general form, though the same cannot be insisted on as a matter of right.”

To which, the House expressed its sincere gratitude at placing the judges in such a position that might otherwise precluded them from venturing an answer to questions as broad as they were narrow.

 

BANKS v GOODFELLOW

Intermittent delusions and moments of panic are obvious symptoms of repressed trauma, but in 1870 the diagnosis was quite different. When a testator suffering those very disturbances drafted his final will, the beneficiary passed soon afterwards, leaving their next-of-kin defending the right to inherit through intestacy when a claim of lunacy was used to challenge the validity of the will.

Known by many as a man of means, the deceased was prone to suffering immeasurable anxiety around a named individual, who even after his demise, was still considered by the testator to be haunting and molesting him in spirit as he had in life. This outlandish claim resulted in his being committed to the local lunatic asylum, before his eventual release and reintegration into the local community.

While his symptoms continued to a lesser degree, the testator was still regarded as somewhat insane by both the local doctor and parish clergyman, yet towards the end of his life he had made clear and concise arrangements with regard to the exactness of his will, the continued lease of owned property, and those he wished to attest to and benefit from, his legacy.

Upon his death in 1865, the will was executed as per prior instructions, whereupon his niece and sole beneficiary passed two years later, with no prepared will and absent of children; and so, at the point of litigation, the claimant argued that due to the testator’s susceptibility to psychological imbalances, the will was now invalid, and thus under the rules of intestacy the estate was due to the testator’s heir, and not the beneficiary’s half-brother.

When first heard, the court offered the opinion of a jury, who having heard the facts, agreed that the will was, despite any inconsistencies in the testator’s mental health, valid and duly executable.

With the court awarding so, the case was put before the Queen’s Bench, whereupon recent precedent was used to evaluate the contention raised.

As laid down in Smith v Tebbitt, the Court of Probate had previously ruled that:

“[A]ny degree of mental unsoundness, however slight, and however unconnected with the testamentary disposition in question, must be held fatal to the capacity of a testator.”

Smith v Tebbitt

However, in Greenwood v Greenwood Lord Kenyon had argued that:

“If he had a power of summoning up his mind, so as to know what his property was, and who those persons were that then were the objects of his bounty, then he was competent to make his will.”

Greenwood v Greenwood

While in Cartwright v Cartwright, Sir William Wynne had stipulated that:

“If a lunatic person, or one that is beside himself at some times, but not continually, makes his testament, and it is not known whether the same were made while he was of sound mind and memory or no, then, in case the testament be so conceived as thereby no argument of phrensy or folly can be gathered, it is to be presumed that the same was made during the time of his calm and clear intermissions…”

Cartwright v Cartwright

While adopting a supportive stance to those viewed above, Legrand du Saulle likewise wrote in ‘La Folie deviant les tribunaux’ that:

“[H]allucinations are not a sufficient obstacle to the power of making a will, if they have exercised no influence on the conduct of the testator, have not altered his natural affections, or prevented the fulfilment of his social and domestic duties…”

All of which, left the Court under no illusions as to how succinctly the testator had both discussed and prepared his will in line with his financial circumstances and clarity of mind, and so despite the urgency of the appellant where imperfection of the mind would result in nullity, there was simply not enough evidence to undermine the logic of the deceased, and so with notions of jury misdirection quickly dismissed, the court validated the will while holding that:

“The English law leaves everything to the unfettered discretion of the testator, on the assumption that, though in some instances, caprice, or passion, or the power of new ties, or artful contrivance,, or sinister influence, may lead to the neglect of claims that ought to be attended to, yet, the instincts, affections, and common sentiments of mankind may be safely trusted to secure, on the whole, a better disposition of the property of the dead, and one more accurately adjusted to the requirements of each particular case,, than could be obtained through a distribution prescribed by the stereotyped and inflexible rules of a general law.”