The fundamental principle of law that no one should be permitted to profit from their own wrongdoing is very easy to state but can be far more challenging to apply in practice. That was certainly so in a unique High Court case concerning a man who was in the grip of mental illness when he killed three elderly victims.
Following a trial, the man was acquitted of murder charges by reason of insanity. He was ordered to be detained at Broadmoor Hospital. He had a long history of mental illness and, in the days prior to the killings, his bizarre and violent conduct had brought him into contact with the police and mental health professionals.
He launched a compensation claim against a private health services company and three public authorities alleging that their treatment of him during that period was negligent and violated his human rights. He claimed damages for personal injury and loss of liberty, reputation and dignity. He also sought an indemnity in respect of any claim brought against him in consequence of his violence towards others.
Three of those on the receiving end of his claim applied to strike out his case against them, citing the principle of illegality. They argued that, were he to succeed in his claim, he would be profiting from his own wrongdoing. They asserted that public confidence in the justice system was highly likely to be shaken were he to receive compensation in respect of the killings.
Rejecting the application, however, the Court noted that he had not been found guilty of any crime. By reaching a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, the trial jury found that he had no knowledge that what he was doing was wrong. He therefore bore no criminal responsibility for the killings. The order detaining him in a mental hospital was made in order to protect the public and was not a punishment.
The man's insanity meant that no blameworthiness attached to him and permitting his claim to proceed would therefore not offend against public policy or cause any harm to the integrity of the legal system. Blocking his claim would not serve as a deterrent to others or strengthen the prohibition on the taking of life. The ruling meant that he could pursue his claim to trial.