A police force has defended its decision to prosecute two mentally ill women who were charged after they caused traffic jams when trying to kill themselves.
Greater Manchester police (GMP) charged the two this year following the incidents. The force said it would review both cases and stressed prosecution was “rarely a course of action for someone with a mental health condition”.
But it said charges could be appropriate if a person has made multiple attempts, causing repeated obstruction.
In one case, an 18-year-old woman had to be talked to safety by a police constable. A motorway had to be closed for about 20 minutes while a total of 16 officers dealt with the incident on 27 April.
It was the sixth time she had threatened to take her life in the same location, Manchester magistrates court heard.
The woman pleaded guilty to causing a public nuisance. In mitigation, her lawyer said she was mourning the death of her mother, grandmother and uncle, who all died in the past year.
She had recently left a hospital where she had been admitted for a self-harm incident, magistrates were told, and had been in care for much of the previous year. Her lawyer said she had an “unstable personality disorder”.
Magistrates sentenced her to a 12-month community order, warning her she had caused ‘‘massive inconvenience’’. She was also ordered to pay £200 in costs and surcharges.
In a separate incident in January a 27-year-old woman – who had disappeared from a psychiatric unit after a row over her medication – walked on to the same motorway, the Manchester Evening News (MEN) reported.
This week she was convicted at Manchester magistrates court of the rarely used offence of being “excluded traffic on a special road”, in this case illegally walking on a motorway.
She was conditionally discharged for six months and ordered to pay £105 in costs and surcharges, which will be deducted from her state benefits, before being sent back to the same psychiatric unit.
The court heard that while she had caused cars using the motorway to slow down, she had not put anyone else in danger, the MEN said.
A spokesman for GMP said: “Supporting those most vulnerable is a priority for Greater Manchester police. We work closely with our partners to ensure people with mental health conditions are assisted in the most appropriate way and pointed in the direction of services that can give them the help they need most.
“Sadly, it is an ever more regular occurrence for suicide threats on the motorway network.
“Every incident is treated on a case-by-case basis and a prosecution is rarely a course of action for someone with a mental health condition. We speak to our colleagues in the mental health triage service and take their guidance before we decide on the most appropriate action.
“If a prosecution has been sought the likelihood is that there have been several incidents prior which we have attended and taken a different course of action.”
The force said it would review the cases to ensure the correct decision was made.
Alison Cobb, a policy adviser at the mental health charity Mind, said: “Police officers are often first on the scene when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis and have to deal with challenging situations quickly and calmly.
“It’s really important that anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts or actions is dealt with sensitively, compassionately and with dignity and respect, rather than being criminalised.’’
Ten years ago a man in London was put on trial after being talked down from a railway bridge by police negotiators. Michael Finnegan, then 26, was prosecuted for trespass and faced a compensation bill of £24,000 to reimburse the train company for lost profits.
The case was eventually dropped and Finnegan was sectioned and taken to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. He founded a mental health charity and now gives talks to encourage men to be open about their feelings.