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Sleepwalking – Is it a Defence?

January 21, 2019

You wake up one morning from sleepwalking the night before and the horror of the night before quickly unfolds.  Blue lights and uniformed police officers greet you, search your house and find your girlfriend dead in the bathroom. You have no memory of anything happening overnight, and she was alive and well when you went to sleep.

You are arrested and while riding in the back of the police car, can only think that you must have done it while sleepwalking. It sounds almost comical that this could actually be a viable defence, but the reality is that it could well be.

Are you guilty?

Sleepwalking is most often used as a defence to violent or sexual offences (often referred to as ‘Sexsomnia’) and is a legitimate defence to both.

It falls under the defence of automatism (a mental condition defence used when claiming a lack of voluntariness/consciousness), which is further broken into two types. Which type of automatism will depend on the cause: internal (insane automatism) or external (simple automatism).

Both of these mean you didn’t act knowingly but acted automatically and without the intention to commit the crime.  However if this state was brought about as a result of self-induced intoxication, the defence will not be available. ).

Insanity or non-insane automatism?

Insane automatism is a more difficult defence to put forward, as it requires the defence to prove that it is more likely than not the explanation for the offence, following the rules set out in a famous old case of M’Naghten. It also needs medical evidence of an internal cause.

Simple automatism, on the other hand, requires the defence only to provide enough evidence to make the issue “live”, in other words to make it a realistic possibility that you acted unknowingly.  Expert evidence will probably be required in both cases. 

The prosecution will then have to disprove it so that the jury can be sure you acted knowingly.

There is some legal debate in other jurisdictions concerning the class in which sleepwalking might fall, but the courts in England and Wales are yet to grapple with this. Which is just as well, as the law is complicated enough as it is.

What are the outcomes?

Non-insane automatism, if accepted, will lead to a simple acquittal: not guilty.

Insane automatism is slightly trickier and results in a special verdict: not guilty by reason of insanity. The sentencing options available to a judge are then limited to an absolute discharge, a supervision order, or a hospital order.

How Tuckers Solicitors can help you…

To discuss anything to do with the defence of automatism (the sleepwalking defence) please contact us on 020 7388 8333 or email info@tuckerssolicitors.com and we will gladly assist.  

Our offices are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ready to deliver immediate and expert legal advice and representation.