Fitness to stand trial

Defendants facing criminal trials need the ability to understand and participate in the proceedings. Psychiatric disorder can render a person incapable or unfit in relation to trial. In its traditional formulation the test of unfitness to plead is whether the defendant is of sufficient intellect to comprehend the course of the proceedings in the trial, so as to make a proper defence, to know that he might challenge jurors, and to comprehend details of the evidence. (1 ,2.°) Specific considerations are whether the defendant understands what he is charged with, the nature of the prosecution evidence, and the difference between a plea of guilty and not guilty. The defendant should also be able to follow the proceedings and be able to instruct lawyers so that the defence case can be made. It should also be remembered that in some cases defendants will need to be able to give evidence themselves, and their ability to do so will need to be considered. Defendants can be unfit to plead because of learning disabilities, or sometimes because of psychotic illness, particularly when they have delusional beliefs relating to the court proceedings and their lawyers. The clinical features of the individual's condition need to be carefully considered in relation to the specific criteria of unfitness to plead.

If the issue of fitness to plead is raised, it has to be dealt with before the trial can start. If the individual is found fit to plead then he will normally proceed to trial. If the person is found unfit to plead, and the court is satisfied that he did the alleged criminal act, the court will make a decision about the most suitable disposal of the case. Under the Criminal Procedure (Insanity and Unfitness to Plead) Act 1991, the options available to the court include an order for admission to hospital (which could include a restriction order if necessary), a guardianship order, an absolute discharge, or a supervision and treatment order. The latter will usually place the person under the supervision of a social worker, and there will be a psychiatric treatment requirement. The order can last for up to 2 years.

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