The Defence of Unsound Mind in Singapore: What is It?

Last updated on November 25, 2020

court hearing with accused, judge, lawyers and officers

Most criminal offences in Singapore have two components: a physical act of committing the offence and a mental element, such as the intention to commit the offence. The defence of unsound mind operates on this mental element.

It allows an accused to be acquitted or released from the charges facing him because, at the time of the offence, he was of unsound mind and was not able to tell right from wrong. The law would not find such an accused blameworthy.

However, this defence may not be the most ideal one to raise because:

  • Of its stringent requirements; and
  • Even if successfully raised, there are still consequences for the accused. If he had performed the physical act of the offence, the court will remand him into safe custody at a psychiatric institution.

This article will discuss:

When Can an Accused Raise the Defence of Unsound Mind in Singapore?

Unsoundness of mind has been interpreted to mean that the accused is suffering from some permanent mental malfunction that causes him to imagine and believe things a reasonable person would not. For example, someone with schizophrenia may qualify as suffering from an unsound mind, but someone with subnormal intellect may not.

It is a misconception that unsoundness of the mind depends on a clinical diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder.

The defence of unsound mind concerns itself with legal sanity and not medical sanity. This means that it is for the courts to decide whether an accused is suffering from an unsound mind, not medical professionals. Nevertheless, the courts will consider medical opinion in coming to its decision.

To raise this defence under the Penal Code, the unsoundness of the accused’s mind must have caused him to fall under at least one of the following conditions at the time of the offence:

  • Incapable of knowing the nature of the act. The nature of the act refers to situations where the accused was not able to understand his actions.
  • Incapable of knowing what he is doing is either morally or legally wrong. Morally or legally wrong refers to acts that a reasonable and sane person would find to be morally wrong or against the law respectively.
  • Completely deprived of the power to control his actions. This refers to situations where the accused may not have satisfied either of the two conditions above, but is unable to stop himself from performing the act because he is suffering from a certain mental disorder.

The common thread running through these three conditions is complete incapacity, or a total inability of the accused to know or control his actions. A partial incapacity would not be enough. This requirement for complete incapacity makes the defence difficult to raise as in most cases, the accused would have some capacity to know his actions or control them.

The court may be informed of the possibility that the accused is of unsound mind by either the Prosecution, by the accused as part of his defence, or through the conduct of the accused in the court.

What Happens If an Accused is Suspected to be of Unsound Mind in Singapore?

Once the court suspects that the accused may be of unsound mind, and hence unable to make his defence, the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) sets out the procedure for it to follow.

First, the court should investigate whether the accused is indeed suffering from an unsound mind. This can be done with or without the presence of the accused in court. The court will consider the safety of the accused or the interests of public decency in deciding whether the presence of the accused in court is necessary.

In deciding the soundness of mind of the accused, the court may consider medical opinion given in writing or verbally. If the court believes that the accused is not able to make his defence, it can postpone the trial and order the accused be remanded in a psychiatric institution for observation for up to 1 month.

At the end of this observation period, the court will require a medical opinion as to the accused’s state of mind from a doctor. If a diagnosis cannot be reached, the period of remand can be extended for up to another 2 months. The trial proceeds if the doctor finds the accused to be of sound mind and capable of making his defence, and the court is also satisfied that this is so.

What Happens If an Accused is Found to be of Unsound Mind?

If the accused is found to be of unsound mind and unable to make his defence, what happens next will depend on whether the accused is fit to stand trial. The accused’s fitness to stand trial is determined by the court after considering the opinion of the doctor who observed the accused.

Release pending trial

If the court is satisfied that the accused is unfit for trial, it can release the accused if the offence is a bailable one. The court will require assurances that the accused will be properly taken care of, prevented from injuring himself or others, appear in court when required, and any other conditions the court finds necessary before releasing him.

However, if the offence is not a bailable one, the court can remand the accused in safe custody at a psychiatric institution, or other places of safe custody. During such period of remand, the accused’s state of mind must be examined at least once every 6 months.

The court can also still require the accused to appear before it to determine whether he is capable of making his defence, and therefore decide whether to resume the trial.

Resuming the trial

If the court is satisfied that the accused is able to make his defence despite the unsoundness of his mind, the trial will resume.

The accused may be acquitted after the trial by reason of his unsound mind. However, if the court is satisfied that the accused would have been guilty of the offence if not for the unsound mind, it shall order that the acquitted person be placed in safe custody.

The court will then report the matter to the Minister for Home Affairs who may order the acquitted person to be confined at a prison, psychiatric institution or other suitable places at the President’s pleasure. This means that he is confined for an indefinite period of time and examined at least once every 6 months until he is found to be capable of being released without danger of injuring himself or any other person. He may then be released.

If the charges are withdrawn instead, the court may also send the accused to a psychiatric institution for treatment.

If however the accused is convicted of the offence (i.e. the defence of unsound mind fails), he will be sentenced as per normal.

If someone you care about committed a criminal offence and you think that he may be of unsound mind, it may be possible to raise this defence in court. In such circumstances, you should consult a criminal lawyer for advice. It could mean the difference between the accused receiving treatment at a psychiatric institution or imprisonment.

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