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Trinidad and Tobago recognizes the defence of insanity where an individual should not be held criminally responsible for his actions if at the time of committing the offence, he was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the acts he was doing, or if he did  know, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong. The application of this defence is a complex process that unfolds in several stages, each shrouded in myths and truths. 

Myth 1: Easy Exploitation of the Insanity Defence
A persistent myth suggests that individuals can easily feign mental illness to escape criminal liability. However, the reality is quite different. 

Reality: Rigorous Assessment by Experts
Trinidad and Tobago place a significant emphasis on expert psychiatric evaluation when determining insanity. The criteria for establishing insanity are stringent. To successfully plead insanity, the accused must demonstrate that their mental disorder substantially impaired their judgment at the time of the offense. 

This entails a comprehensive evaluation by expert psychiatrists and a thorough examination of the accused's mental state during the alleged criminal act. A psychiatrist on behalf of the Defence, conducts a thorough assessment, probing into the accused's mental health history, behaviour, and state of mind during the alleged criminal act. This assessment is a critical part of the legal process and is far from a mere formality. 

Myth 2: Escaping Consequences Through the Insanity Defence
Another misconception is that the insanity defence leads to the accused being released without consequences. This is far from accurate. 

Reality: Treatment and Rehabilitation 
The primary objective of the insanity defence in Trinidad and Tobago is not to evade punishment but to ensure that individuals with severe mental disorders receive appropriate treatment and rehabilitation. A court-appointed psychiatrist plays a pivotal role in determining when the accused is no longer a danger to society and can be safely released. 

While a successful insanity plea may result in acquittal, it does not equate to immediate release. Instead, the individual is typically committed to a psychiatric institution for treatment and evaluation until they are deemed fit for release by medical professionals.

Myth 3: Overuse of the Insanity Defence
Some argue that the insanity defence is employed too frequently, leading to numerous acquittals. In reality, its application is relatively rare. 

Reality: Rare Application 
The use of the insanity defence is not a common strategy for defence attorneys. The Trinidad and Tobago legal system carefully scrutinizes such cases to prevent any potential abuse of the defence.

It is reserved for cases where the accused's mental state genuinely raises doubts about their criminal responsibility. Most criminal cases proceed without invoking the insanity defence, and it is only used when there is substantial evidence of mental illness impacting the accused's culpability. This evidence must come from a trained medical professional. 

The Procedure of a "Special Verdict" 
The insanity defence in Trinidad and Tobago introduces the concept of a "special verdict." This process becomes relevant when the defence asserts that the accused person was insane at the time of the act for which they are charged. 

In such cases, the Prosecution has a pivotal role to play. If the Prosecution challenges the insanity claim, they must provide evidence to satisfy both the actus reus (the physical act) and mens rea (the mental state) of the offence. However, if the Prosecution does not contest the insanity defence, they are only required to prove the elements of the actus reus. 

In "special verdict" cases, the accused person is arraigned and pleads "not guilty." A jury is empanelled, and the trial proceeds with the State presenting evidence to establish the elements of the offence. Simultaneously, the Defence introduces evidence to support the claim of insanity. At the trial's conclusion, the judge may direct, or the jury may return a special verdict of "Guilty of [the act charged], but insane at the time when he did it." 

Upon a special verdict being found against an accused person, the Court records the jury's finding. Subsequently, the Court may order the individual to be detained in safe custody, in such a manner and place as the Court deems fit until the Court's Pleasure is known. This practice aligns with the modified version of section 67 of the Criminal Procedure Act, Ch. 12:02

The insanity defence in Trinidad and Tobago is a multifaceted aspect of the criminal justice system, often shrouded in myth and misconceptions. While it may seem like an avenue for exploitation or evasion of consequences, the reality is far more complex. Rigorous psychiatric assessments, rare application, and a focus on treatment and rehabilitation underscore the intricate nature of this defence. 

Understanding the nuances of the insanity defence is paramount to dispelling misconceptions and promoting a fair and just legal system in Trinidad and Tobago. It is a vital component that seeks to balance the principles of justice, accountability, and the well-being of individuals with mental disorders within the bounds of the law.

Submitted by:
Avionne Bruno-Mason
Public Defender 11 Junior
Public Defenders’ Department 
Legal Aid and Advisory Authority,
23 Stanmore Avenue, Port of Spain.
Contact: 638-5222 
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Published in The Trinidad Guardian News Paper on Friday 29th September, 2023