Miracle on the High Street

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that as a child I was heavily influenced by the classic Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street. After spending a lot of time in my studies thinking I wanted to work for the Crown Prosecution Service, I accidentally found myself in an area of law where I might actually have been able to assist Mr Kringle with his predicament. I’m not going to set out the plot of the film, because I’m assuming a lot of you have already watched at least one version of the story. And if you haven’t, well Google exists for a reason. Other search engines also work.

But this festival season I thought it would be fun to think about what would happen if Kris Kringle assaulted someone in York, rather than New York, in the run up to Christmas. Let’s assume he works for Dobbies garden centre, not Cole’s department store and there is hot competition in town during the Christmas period. He took the job in Santa’s grotto on short notice after the previous hire showed up to work drunk and his predecessor is bitter, resentful and stages an altercation in order to tarnish Mr Kringle’s reputation. What is poor Santa to do?

There are 3 possible areas of law that might come into play: criminal, mental health and mental capacity. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination but I’m familiar with the basics of each and will do my best to give at least an idea of what might happen.

The police would certainly attend the scene and arrest Mr Kringle as well as interviewing the witnesses. A competent investigation would quickly learn that the victim was not in fact injured and did provoke Mr Kringle by being insulting and making horrible and unfounded allegations. The offence would be a minor one. Maybe battery or assault occasioning actual bodily harm if the victim has a minor injury where the cane hit him. It might be that given the circumstances the decision is made that prosecuting Mr Kringle is not in the public interest, especially if the victim does not wish to press charges and is not cooperating with the investigation. The CPS guidance on charging would suggest that in this situation it is much more likely Mr Kringle would be released without charge, perhaps with some kind of warning. It’s unlikely, although not impossible, that Mr Kringle would face a prosecution.

If Mr Kringle, fearful of the prospect of imprisonment and facing a prosecution chooses to present a defence on the basis of poor mental health and starts telling everyone he is Santa Claus and reindeer fly (but only on Christmas Eve!) then he’d likely be assessed by a psychiatrist. For this to work as a successful defence, however, it would be necessary to show that at the time of the incident Mr Kringle didn’t know the nature of the act being done, or did not know what he did was wrong. Given his immediate displays of remorse, that is very unlikely.

Were he convicted, according to the Sentencing Guidelines, Mr Kringle would, if convicted, receive a sentence somewhere between a band B fine (in the region of a week’s income for Mr Kringle) and 26 weeks in prison, assuming the charge is assault occasioning actual bodily harm.

If Mr Kringle was charged with an offence then it is possible that the court could, instead of sentencing and without proceeding to a conviction, make a hospital order under s37 Mental Health Act 1983. This would require evidence from 2 doctors that he has a mental disorder of a nature and degree that it is appropriate for him to receive treatment in hospital and for the court to decide that hospital treatment is the more appropriate way of dealing with Mr Kringle. It would also need to be possible for Mr Kringle to be admitted to hospital for treatment.

To be blunt, it is very unlikely that these criteria would be met for Mr Kringle, given that his mental health condition (assuming you accept that his belief he is Santa Claus is a delusion) did not cause the offence and he has no offending history.

So in all likelihood, just as in the films, the criminal law is unlikely to cause Mr Kringle any difficulty since it is unlikely he’d be charged at all. But if he was, he’s more likely to receive a fine or community service than to be sent to a mental health ward. Of course, if convicted he is likely to lose his job and fail DBS checks to work with children and other vulnerable groups in the future.

But if we follow the films’ narrative, no prosecution will be made. Instead, an issue is made of Mr Kringle’s safety in the community and the risks associated with his ‘delusions’. A referral would likely be made to local mental health services and/or social services. There might be a safeguarding enquiry as Mr Kringle is living in a supported living placement in the city and likely to be considered vulnerable to abuse under s42 Care Act 2014. A Mental Health Act assessment might be called.

Now in practice, the chances of a Mental Health Act assessment being called in this case is very low because services are overstretched and Mr Kringle is likely to be seen as a low risk. Even if it was, he is not going to meet the criteria for detention under s2 or s3 of the Act. Whilst he might be suffering from a delusional disorder, this isn’t likely to be of a nature and degree that assessment or treatment in hospital, rather than in the community, will be required. And detention isn’t necessary for either his health and safety or protection of the public. Except for this one incident Mr Kringle has been happily going about his life without hurting himself or anyone else. So detention on a mental health ward is extremely unlikely. There aren’t enough beds for people who do need them, so he is unlikely to find himself as a voluntary patient either, although he would undoubtedly go to hospital if that was recommended, given what we know about amiable Kris Kringle.

What about if his supported living placement gets a bit uneasy after all this fuss, and advocates for Mr Kringle to move into a residential care placement and be subject to 24 hour care and support? There is nothing to say that Mr Kringle’s needs would justify this. Believing he is Santa does not seem to be stopping him from being able to look after himself. He can uses buses and taxis to get around just fine, with no evidence of disorientation. He uses a stick but is independently mobile. He’s clean and well-groomed so there are no indicators of poor personal care. Road safety doesn’t seem to be an issue. When people say he isn’t Santa, he mostly responds with a laugh and a wink and no aggression.

Given all of that, it is extremely unlikely the local authority would pay for a care home. But if they did, they would have no power to make Mr Kringle live in a care home and the choice would be his. Whilst his capacity could be assessed on the basis of suspected delusional disorder, it’s difficult to see how he would lack capacity to make decisions about his residence and care. Going around in a red suit and affecting a jolly demeanor does not prevent Mr Kringle from being unable to understand, retain, use or weigh the relevant information for residence or care decisions. He seems to be well aware of his own limitations and more than willing to accept assistance. Unless he started declaring he didn’t need any assistance because the elves would help him and he doesn’t need his walking stick because he can fly, or otherwise displaying a lack of cognitive abilities related to his delusional disorder, Mr Kringle isn’t going to be made to go anywhere he doesn’t want to go.

As long as the garden centre is happy to keep employing him and families still want to go and see a multi-lingual Santa with a particular gift for engaging with the most hard to reach children, Kris Kringle would be able to simply brush off the whole incident and go about his business

No handsome lawyer, no sceptical mother or well-mannered (and slightly annoying) little girl. There’d be no judge, no reindeer in court or last minute Christmas cards to save the day on Christmas Eve. Absolutely no one would have to declare whether or not Santa Claus is real. All in all, a much less interesting and heartwarming story.

I think I ruined it…

Merry Christmas everyone 🎄

In case it isn’t obvious from the fact I still haven’t identified the authority I used to work for, or the organisation I now work for, the views expressed on this blog are my own opinion and not the opinion of that local authority or organisation.

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