The Sleepwalking Defence and Implications of the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act

Posted By Lana McCrea

The National Post reported on February 17, 2015 that a man on trial for sexually assaulting his seven-year-old daughter in December 2010 was found not criminally responsible. The judge ruled that he was sleepwalking and therefore in a state of automatism. The man was accused of entering his daughter’s bed after his wife kicked him out of their bed for having spent the night drinking. He allegedly tried to remove his daughter’s underwear and held her down as he touched her. Dr. Colin Shapiro testified that the man suffered from parasomnia, a type of sleep disorder that can include ‘sleep sex’.

R v Parks (1992) established that sleepwalking can be classified as automatism resulting in the verdict of not guilty. In that case, the defendant drove 25 kilometers to the home of his in-laws and stabbed his father-in-law to death, seriously injuring his mother-in-law.

In Canada v Campbell (2000), George Campbell was found not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder after he attacked a woman in her bed where she had been sleeping with him. He was charged with attempted murder, assault with a weapon, aggravated assault, choking, and uttering a death threat. The judge ruled that he had been sleepwalking and therefore the defence of automatism applied. On October 14, 2014, CBC News reported that Phyllis John was attacked by the same George Campbell. She claimed that she “didn’t realize her new boyfriend was the ‘sleepwalker’” at first.

One important aspect of the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act is that it creates a high-risk designation. Upon being designated as such by a court, the accused would be held in custody at a hospital and could not be released by a review board until the designation was revoked by a court. The designation has other important consequences that may help safeguard victims from future acts by those held not criminally responsible. Sleepwalking is just one of many manifestations of the automatism defence which may be affected by the new legislation.

The McGill Journal of Law and Health will discuss some of these important developments and what their implications may be at its Colloquium on February 21st, 2015.

For more information on the MJLH Colloquium, and to read up on our other distinguished speakers, click here.

Interested in sleepwalking and neuroscience? See MJLH Online Editor Jey Kumarasamy’s recent blog post, here.

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