UKSC: Compensation refused for killing during psychotic episode.

The Appellant, who had previously been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, stabbed her mother to death whilst expiring a serious psychotic episode. The Appellant pleaded guilty to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. It was common ground between the parties that this would not have happened but for the Respondent’s breaches of duty in failing to respond in an appropriate way to the Appellant’s deteriorating mental health at the time.

In the present proceedings, she claimed damages caused by her killing of her mother under six heads: (i) damages for the depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder; (ii) damages for loss of liberty; (iii) loss of amenity; (iv) £61,944 being the share in her mother’s estate which she did not inherit due to operation of the Forfeiture Act 1982; (v) cost of psychotherapy; (vi) cost of a care manager/support worker.

Her claim had failed at trial and on appeal to the Court of Appeal.

She therefore appealed to the Supreme Court: Ecila Henderson (A Protected Party, by her litigation friend, The Official Solicitor) v Dorset Healthcare University NHS Foundation Trust [2020] UKSC 43.

The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed Ms Henderson’s appeal, and held that her claim against Dorset Healthcare was barred by the illegality defence. A number of issues were identified and two earlier decisions were reviewed (Gray and Patel) but for the purposes of this note, it is sufficient to draw from the Court’s media release.

“In relation to stage (a), the policy reasons which support denial of Ms Henderson’s claim include the consistency and public confidence principles identified in Gray [119, 125-126]. They also include: (i) the gravity of her criminal offence; (ii) the public interest in the proper allocation of NHS resources; (iii) the very close connection between her claim and her offence; and (iv) the public interest in deterring, protecting the public from and condemning unlawful killing [127-129]. Although a claimant in Ms Henderson’s position may not be deterred from unlawful killing by being deprived of a civil right to compensation, there may well be a broader deterrent effect in a clear rule that unlawful killing never pays. Any such effect is important given the fundamental importance of the right to life. To have such a rule also supports the public interest in public condemnation and due punishment [130-131].
In relation to stage (b), the policy reasons relied upon for allowing Ms Henderson’s negligence claim do not begin to outweigh those which support the denial of the claim. In particular, as Gray makes clear, the resulting inconsistency in the law is such as to affect the integrity of the legal system and the underlying policy question identified in Patel is accordingly engaged [137].”