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Is the current Fitness to Plead test out of date?

13 Jan 2016

The Law Commission are reviewing the current test for fitness to plead cases. They have concluded that there should  be  a new  test  to  determine if  a  defendant  facing  criminal  charges  is  mentally  fit  to  stand  trial. procedure  for  assessing  a  defendant’s fitness  to  plead  dates  back   to the  common law  case of  Pritchard in 1836. The  call  for  reform came after  the political  row over  whether  Lord  Janner was fit  to  plead  to  historical  child  abuse,  due to his deteriorating mental  health and  medical  condition.

The current procedure is that two psychiatrists are required  to prepare  reports  for the  court’s  consideration,  testing  whether  the  defendant  has  the  capacity to  understand  the  charge, decide whether  to  plead  guilty or  not  guilty , instruct lawyers, exercise their  right to challenge  jurors,  follow  proceedings and  give  evidence in  support of  their  defence.

If the defendant is deemed “unfit to plead”   by  both  Psychiatrists there  will  be  a  fact finding hearing where a  jury  hear  evidence and  determine if the defendant  did  the  act . The  Defendant  does  not  give  evidence at this hearing and  his  rights  are protected  by  a  lawyer  appointed  by the  Court . Following the  Hearing the jury  has to decide if the  defendant  “did  the  act” or  made the  omission charged;  for  this  purpose referring to the  actus reus of  the  offence and  not  the mens  rea. The  Court then  deal  with  the  defendant  by  either imposing   a hospital  order (with  or  without  restrictions), a supervision  order or  an absolute  discharge.

At present the fitness to plead procedure is  only available  in the  Crown Court and  not in the  Youth Court  or  Magistrates  Court, where  some of  society’s  most  vulnerable  frequently appear and become criminalised despite having  complex mental  health  needs.

The Law  Commission has  called for  a  shift in  focus from the  existing fitness to plead test which prioritise  intellectual  ability, to one  where the issue  of  “intent”  is  also  considered. The proposal is to consider the views of other  professionals  including  psychologists

The Law  Commission believe if the new  fitness  to plead rules  are  adopted  they will  apply to  approximately  500  cases  annually;  currently there  are  appropriately 30  insanity  cases  in England  and  Wales  per  year. This  will seek to  further  protect  the  needs  of the  most  vulnerable appearing  in the  Criminal  justice  system.

If you or  somebody  you  know  is  facing a  criminal  charge  and there are  concerns about mental  health issues and their fitness to plead, please contact us today, and ask for Jacqui  Callan. Jacqui is an expert defence solicitor, with substantial experience of dealing with fitness to plead cases, working alongside expert  psychiatrists.


Marie Dancer

Written by Marie Dancer

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