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    Andrew Hemming*


    Diminished responsibility is a partial defence to murder which, if proven, reduces criminal liability for unlawful homicide from murder to manslaughter. This paper contends that given the vagueness, uncertainty and practical difficulties associated with the defence of diminished responsibility, it should be abolished completely in Australia as the very breadth of the defence, allows a coach and horses to be driven through criminal responsibility for murder. It will be contended that the availability of the defence of diminished responsibility is not appropriate even in jurisdictions such as Queensland and the Northern Territory which retain a mandatory life sentence for murder. Furthermore, it will be argued that attempts to reformulate the defence of diminished responsibility are akin to seeking to glue back together a shattered vessel.

    i introduction

    This paper is divided into three parts. The first part, the introduction, commences with an examination of the origins of the partial defence of diminished responsibility in Scotland and England, with attention being given to the English legislation as it was largely imported into several Australian jurisdictions. The second part examines the history of the defence in the four Australian jurisdictions that have allowed the partial defence and the extent to which they now differ from the parent English legislation. Whilst there are important differences between the four Australian jurisdictions, such as definitional differences and the role of expert evidence on the ultimate issue of whether responsibility was substantially diminished to warrant the reduction of murder to

    * Lecturer in Law, Charles Darwin University, Northern Territory, Australia.

  • (2008) 10 UNDALR


    manslaughter, the elements of the defence are essentially the same and therefore the problems are similar. The third part considers sentencing, which, given the defence originated in an era of mandatory life imprisonment for murder, will focus on the two Australian jurisdictions of Queensland (Qld) and the Northern Territory (NT) which both permit the partial defence of diminished responsibility and retain mandatory life imprisonment for murder. The sister defence of mental impairment or the often associated defence of provocation is not within the scope of this article and as such has not been specifically addressed. However, some of the key linkages will be considered, such as Victorias decision to abolish provocation and resist the introduction of diminished responsibility because of fears that defendants who utilise the partial defence of provocation would instead seek to utilise the partial defence of diminished responsibility.

    As to mental impairment, the successor to the old insanity defence, it will be noted that the sister defences of mental impairment and diminished responsibility both rely on the so called three capacities,1 with the defence having to prove on the balance of probabilities a total incapacity against one of the three capacities for mental impairment, and a substantial incapacity against one of the three capacities for diminished responsibility. The main point here is that, unlike the old insanity defence where the defendant pleading insanity faced a lifetime at Her Majestys pleasure in an asylum for the criminally insane, today a successful defence of mental impairment will lead to an accused person being liable to supervision or being released unconditionally.2 It is argued in this paper that the partial defence of diminished responsibility should also be seen in the context of a far less draconian sentencing regime than in the past.

    Diminished responsibility originated in Scotland as a plea in mitigation in the mid 19th century, in response to the purely cognitive elements of the MNaghten insanity defence and to provide an alternative to the death penalty in murder cases.3 The Scottish courts developed the defence for persons otherwise liable for murder who did not satisfy the restrictive

    1 See for example Criminal Code 1983 (NT) s 43C(1) Defence of Mental Impairment where the three capacities are listed: (a) he or she did not know the nature and quality of the conduct; (b) he or she did not know that the conduct was wrong (that is he or she could not reason with a moderate degree of sense and composure about whether the conduct, as perceived by reasonable people, was wrong); or (c) he or she was not able to control his or her actions.

    2 See for example Criminal Code 1983 (NT) s 43I.3 HM Advocate v Dingwall (1867) 5 Irvine 466; Victorian Law Reform Commission

    (VLRC), Defences to Homicide, Final Report (2004) [5.94], quoting Lawrie Reznek Evil or Ill?: Justifying the Insanity Defence (1st ed, London: Routledge, 1997), 22-24.



    test for the insanity defence [now mental impairment] but whose mental state was nevertheless impaired.4

    Diminished responsibility became a statutory defence in England when it was introduced under s 2(1) of the Homicide Act 1957 (England) as follows:

    Where a person kills or is a party to the killing of another, he shall not be convicted of murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in doing or being a party to the killing.5

    As Simester and Sullivan observe the raison dtre of section 2 is to avoid the fixed penalty for murder and to afford the sentencing judge the complete discretion that a verdict of manslaughter allows.6

    The Law Commission of England and Wales has in 2004 commented on the formulation of section 2:

    The wording of section 2 has been heavily criticised by judges, psychiatrists, and academic lawyers. Buxton LJ has described it as disastrous and beyond redemption. The late Professor Griew said of it: the wording is altogether a disgrace. Some consider the idea of a substantial impairment of mental responsibility to be nonsensical. Either one was responsible for killing someone, or one was not. Responsibility cannot be either enhanced or diminished. It is capacity or culpability that can be enhanced or diminished, and that is doubtless how the impairment of responsibility wording is understood.7

    It proposed the retention of the defence of diminished responsibility, in the context of recommending that there be first and second degree murder classifications, and that the definition in section 2 be replaced (as set out below) by a more modernised version that can take account of evolving diagnostic practice:

    (a) A person who would otherwise be guilty of first degree murder is not guilty of first degree murder if, at the time of the act or omission causing death, that persons capacity to

    (i) understand events; or (ii) judge whether his or her actions were right or wrong; or (iii) control himself or herself, was substantially impaired by an

    abnormality of mental functioning arising from an underlying condition, developmental immaturity, or both; and

    4 New South Wales Law Reform Commission (NSWLRC), Partial Defences to Murder: Diminished Responsibility, Report No 82 (1997) [3.2].

    5 Homicide Act 1957 (England) s 2(1).6 A P Simester and G R Sullivan, Criminal Law Theory and Doctrine, (1st ed, Oregon:

    Hart, 2000) 578.7 Law Commission of England and Wales, A New Homicide Act for England and Wales,

    Consultation Paper No 177 (2004) 6.36.

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    (b) The abnormality, the developmental immaturity, or the combination of both, was a significant cause of the defendants conduct in carrying out or taking part in the killing.

    (c) Underlying condition means a pre-existing mental or physiological condition.8

    It recommended that a successful plea of diminished responsibility should reduce first degree murder to second degree murder but should not be a partial defence to second degree murder. The Commission believed that diminished responsibility should continue to operate as a partial defence in cases where the sentence for murder is a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. It summarised the rationale in favour of the defence of diminished responsibility as follows:

    The main rationale which underlies the body of opinion favouring retention of diminished responsibility, even if the mandatory life sentence were to be abolished, can be summed up in the phrase fair and just labelling. Consultees frequently expressed the view that it is unjust to label as murderers those not fully responsible for their actions.9

    Apart from the need to ensure fair and just labelling, a number of other arguments were mentioned in individual responses of consultees, including the following:

    the out-dated nature of the insanity defence as contained in the MNaghtenRules. The narrowness of the Rules, in the sense of their preoccupation with cognitive understanding, is seen as reinforcing the need for a partial defence of diminished responsibility. In addition, the stigma which attaches to being labelled insane makes defendants reluctant to plead insanity;

    the need to enable jurors to convict a defendant of a homicide offence incases where, if the only conviction open to them was for murder, they might otherwise (perversely) acquit altogether;

    8 Law Commission of England and Wales, above n 7, 6.2; Following the shocking killing (seven stab wounds) of a complete stranger (Richard Whelan) on a North London bus by Anthony Joseph where the prosecution acce