“You are not to dip one toe, not one finger, in a river or a
canal.” With these words, an antisocial behaviour order was slapped
on 23-year-old Kim Sutton after several attempts to take her own
The Asbo banned her from places where she could commit suicide,
including multi-storey car parks, railway lines, rivers, canals and
bridges. She was warned that a breach could mean
Last month, solicitors fought to overturn the Asbo on the grounds
that Sutton was suffering from a personality disorder.
Sutton’s barrister asked the court: “Can it really be the intention
of parliament that people with mental health problems are made the
subject of Asbos?” He argued that it was more appropriate for
Sutton to seek help.
The judge rejected the appeal, arguing that Sutton did not suffer
from any mental illnesses defined in the Mental Health Act 1983 and
that she had acted out of a desire for attention. But now, as
Sutton’s solicitors consider a second appeal, questions raised by
her case remain burning issues.
Sutton’s case is just one among a growing number where people with
mental health problems or disabilities claim they are being
unfairly criminalised by the government’s flagship public order
In an investigation by Community Care, three individuals
spoke about their experiences, revealing how the needs of
vulnerable people are being ignored amid a tabloid clamour for
None of the individuals wanted to be identified for fear of further
stigma in their communities, and some details of their cases have
been withheld at their request to protect their anonymity.
Elizabeth: Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndromes
Elizabeth’s conditions prevent her understanding
non-verbal communication. The Tourette’s gives her tics and she
swears and spits involuntarily.
She was threatened with an Asbo after an incident in a
Elizabeth claims the staff “wound her up”, but alleges she
“couldn’t help” her behaviour.
“Stress makes my Asperger’s and Tourette’s considerably worse,” she
says. “I was really angry.”
Elizabeth claims that, when the police arrived at the supermarket
after complaints about her behaviour, an officer said: “If you
swear at me again I’ll arrest you.”
She says: “I told him I had Asperger’s and Tourette’s and said I
couldn’t help it, but he arrested me. I begged him not to put me in
the police van. I couldn’t handle it. I was terrified.”
The police warned Elizabeth they would use an Asbo if her behaviour
continued. They later dropped charges against her after verifying
her disabilities with a doctor but stated the police officer who
had dealt with her arrest had “acted in good faith”.
Elizabeth has been traumatised by her experiences and is afraid she
will have an Asbo placed on her if she is unable to control her
behaviour. She adds: “Asbos are seen as an easy fix for dealing
with people like me. I’m just about managing to keep my head above
water, but social services are not prepared to help me until I sink
to crisis point.”
John: paranoid schizophrenic
John was issued with an Asbo after neighbours complained
about his behaviour. He has been in prison for breaching the
John claims his behaviour escalated because he did not receive the
treatment and support he needed.
“Instead of treating my illness, the authorities have treated me
like a criminal,” he says. “It’s not fair that I went to prison for
breaching my Asbo. I did not intend to breach it. Prison aggravated
my mental illness and I am still not getting the help I need. I’m
in a no-win situation.”
Pam: personality disorder
An Asbo was imposed on Pam last year, but she also claims
she was unable to control her behaviour because she lacked
She says: “When I got my Asbo, I was going through a bad stage and
didn’t realise what I was doing. I couldn’t cope.
“It’s horrible when you get yourself into a situation that you can
do nothing about.”
While the voices of people like Elizabeth, John and Pam are rarely
heard in the largely tabloid-led coverage of Asbos, their stories
are just a few among a growing body of evidence coming to
Although the Home Office does not collect statistics on how many
people with mental health problems or disabilities are receiving
Asbos, the House of Commons home affairs select committee inquiry
into antisocial behaviour earlier this year revealed rising
Richard Garside, director of the Crime and Society Foundation
think-tank, told the inquiry that Asbos were “not helpful” in cases
where mentally-ill people had been “causing a nuisance to their
neighbours”. He said: “What is happening is that they are given an
Asbo or subjected to other forms of often heavy-handed
interventions, rather than having their mental health needs
Garside points to the lack of national information on the mental
health needs of individuals subjected to Asbos, but highlights a
study in Leeds that found about one-third of antisocial behaviour
cases involved someone with a mental health problem.
Among the 30 cases of Asbos on vulnerable people submitted to the
inquiry was one in which magistrates had imposed a curfew on a
20-year-old man with schizophrenia after some minor offences
committed at the time when support and treatment were
Because he breached the order, he was sent to prison for two
The British Institute for Brain Injured Children, which is leading
a campaign against Asbos, has also independently identified 15
cases where children with special needs, including Asperger’s and
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, have received
As the backlash against Asbos increases, more cases are being
Lisa Keen, from Bedfordshire, is to challenge her Asbo in court
next month on the grounds of her mental health problems.
Her brother, Christopher Keen, launched the challenge after Lisa
was “named and shamed” in a police leafleting campaign after being
banned from her town centre.
Mental health charity Sane, which has backed Keen’s and Sutton’s
cases, claims that mental health services are “passing the buck” of
care into the criminal justice system.
Chief executive Marjorie Wallace says Asbos are seen as the
“cheaper option” for local authorities. She also suggests that many
individuals who fall foul of the antisocial behaviour laws are seen
as “untreatable” or lack a clear diagnosis.
She says: “Mental health services may feel that treatments on offer
are not obviously successful. There is a lack of therapy for people
who don’t have a defined diagnosed illness and who may not be
treatable with medication.”
Wallace highlights a need for better assessments and “intensive
behaviour management” in the community, but says the question of
cost and pressures on mental health teams makes this
The select committee also found that insufficient support for
people with mental health problems was leading to breaches of
In parliament last month, Home Office minister Hazel Blears laid
the responsibility of making the right decisions on local
“If people with particular vulnerabilities or special needs are
caught up in antisocial behaviour, all the partners should meet to
discuss what action should be taken,” she said.
Home Office guidance on vulnerable people who commit antisocial
behaviour states that a practitioner with specialist knowledge
should be involved in the assessment process where people are
suffering from a disability, learning difficulty or mental health
But in its report published in April, the select committee said it
was “disappointed” that social services and mental health agencies
were “not fully committed” to antisocial behaviour strategies as
they viewed them as “too punitive”. The government agreed.
Although the government is keen to place the responsibility for
decision-making on local agencies, many professionals believe the
system is flawed. One solicitor who recently challenged an Asbo on
a person who had mental health problems blames the rising number of
Asbos given to vulnerable people on “appalling” decisions by
Neil Pilkington, principal solicitor at Salford Council, says the
decision-making behind Asbos is “a world full of tensions” between
professionals’ differing perspectives. Often, social workers, the
police, housing associations, youth offending teams and other
agencies are struggling to work to the same agenda.
Pilkington says: “When mental health professionals are invited to
meetings on Asbo applications, they say they don’t have consent to
talk about individuals.” He claims the lack of information sharing,
caused in part by legal barriers on confidentiality, can lead to a
“black hole” in the assessment of people’s needs.
Wallace calls for mental health services or social services to take
the lead in Asbo decisions concerning vulnerable people and argues
they should be given the chance of treatment before “being judged
for behaving badly”.
But Jim Skelsey, a solicitor in Camden, the borough that issues the
highest number of Asbos in the capital, says support agencies
helping individuals can be “bypassed” in the decision-making
He says: “I have seen cases where agencies have made excellent
representations on behalf of their clients and have argued that
Asbo applications are premature, but the council has been
inflexible and determined to impose an Asbo, come what may.”
Other professionals say vulnerable people are being unfairly
targeted because the legal definition of antisocial behaviour –
“acting in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment,
alarm or distress” – is too broad.
The National Autistic Society, which has backed Elizabeth’s case,
has called for the definition of antisocial behaviour to be based
on “intent” rather than on the “likelihood” of causing alarm or
Amanda Batten, NAS policy officer, says: “It is unfair to expect
people with mental health or other conditions such as autism to
behave in a socially appropriate way. They won’t know what is
One solicitor representing a mentally ill individual in a legal
challenge against an Asbo is calling for greater awareness. He
says: “These cases are more complex than the courts are willing to
He warns that, as the government places the onus on councils to
drive up the number of Asbos, more vulnerable people will be at
risk of breaching them and be unfairly criminalised.
The home affairs select committee report on antisocial behaviour
and the government’s response can be read at