Criminal defendants must determine whether they want to enter a guilty or not-guilty plea. This means that the accused must consciously, voluntarily, and vehemently choose whether to take responsibility for the alleged offense or to dispute the alleged offense and contest it in court.
This choice is extremely important because there are numerous potential outcomes for each alternative option. These repercussions must be communicated to an accused person so that they can make an educated choice about their future. But while facing criminal accusations, a person might not be able to comprehend the legal counsel offered or the procedures involved for a variety of reasons. They might not be able to comprehend the implications or significance of pleading guilty or not guilty. The matter of unfitness for trial must be brought up when there is a suspicion that this is the situation.
What is unfitness for trial?
In the real world, being unfit for trial is not a defense. It’s critical to distinguish between being unfit for trial and the defense of mental impairment, which focuses on the accused’s mental state at the time of the offense-committing behavior. A person who is deemed mentally incapable of comprehending the judicial processes pertaining to the alleged offense is deemed unfit to stand trial. It does not imply that they were not mentally capable of committing the crime.
It is crucial to have policies in place for evaluating and taking into account a person’s readiness to grasp the court process. This is so that erroneous verdicts are avoided and the accused is spared the expense and time of protracted appeals. It prevents injustice to the accused and upholds the trial’s moral integrity.
When is a person unfit for trial?
The Crimes (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to be Tried) Act of 1997 governs cases of trial ineligibility. According to Section 6 of the law, a person must be deemed unable to stand trial if:
“Because the person’s mental processes are disordered or impaired, the person is or, at some time during the trial, will be
- being unable to comprehend the charge’s nature;
- incapable of entering a plea to the charge or using the jury challenge or juror challenge rights;
- unable to comprehend the purpose of the trial, which is to determine whether the defendant committed the crime;
- unable to observe the trial’s progress;
- unable to comprehend the significance of any evidence presented in support of the prosecution;
- incapable of giving directions to their legal counsel”.
How is fitness for trial tested?
An accused individual is presumed to be competent to stand trial. This is true even if the same accused person has previously been found to be incompetent to stand trial. As a result, it is difficult to determine someone’s unfitness and ask such questions.
During the course of a criminal investigation, the issue of trial fitness may be brought up. It may be brought up by the judge, the defense, or the prosecution. The completion of those proceedings is required if the question of fitness to stand trial is brought up while an indictable matter is still under the Magistrates’ Court’s purview (such as at the committal stage). The accused must then be committed for trial, and the County Court’s jurisdiction must address the issue of the accused’s unfitness for trial. If the case is brought up in summary proceedings, the County Court may be asked to decide it. The court may also impose a suspension of the case.
The court may summon witnesses and present evidence on its own initiative, including witnesses from the medical community, during hearings to evaluate a defendant’s ability to stand trial. Each party is free to present evidence on their own and submit arguments in support of their positions.
Who bears the onus?
Unless it is brought up by the judge, in which case there is no onus, the party bringing up the question of the accused’s unfitness for trial is responsible for establishing that they are unfit. The issue will be decided as a question of fact and will be decided by a jury of the Supreme Court or County Court once it has been raised. The applicable standard of proof will be the preponderance of the evidence.
Bail or remand
The case must follow the standard trial process if the jury determines that the defendant is competent to stand trial. The judge must determine whether an accused is likely to become competent to face trial within the following 12 months if the jury finds them unfit to stand trial.
If the judge determines that this is likely, the case must be postponed for a time frame that the judge deems reasonable (less than 12 months). The accused may be held in custody during the adjournment or granted bail, depending on the court’s orders. The Crimes (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to be Tried) Act’s Section 12(4) reads as follows:
“The judge must not remand an accused in custody in a prison unless … satisfied that there is no practicable alternative in the circumstances.”
If the prosecution believes that the accused has improved and is now competent to stand trial, it may schedule the case for mention in court at any time during the postponed term. If “a real and substantial question of fitness is raised again” after the postponed period has passed, the accused shall not be considered to be unfit. The judge may issue an order for another adjournment if a party, including the judge, raises such a question. However, any additional adjournments must not total more than 12 months since the initial finding of ineligibility to stand trial when added to the previously adjourned term. Or, the case must be postponed for a Special Hearing within that time frame.
Following the jury’s initial verdict of ineligibility, if the judge determines that it is unlikely the accused will become fit over the following 12 months, the case must be postponed for a Special Hearing within three months.
When a matter is continued for a Special Hearing, it is to ascertain whether, based on the facts at hand, the accused is:
- not guilty of the alleged offense,
- not guilty of the alleged offense due to a mental illness,
- or has committed the alleged offense or a legal substitute offense.
The conduct of Special Hearings shall be as similar to a regular trial as is practicable, including the application of the standards of evidence and the statutes governing juries. The trial is conducted as though the accused had entered a plea of not guilty when the accused’s fitness to stand trial is in question. It must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be valid.
A person has committed the accused offense if they are found guilty in a Special Hearing. They haven’t, however, been found guilty of the crime. If this happens, the judge must either issue a Supervision Order or unconditionally release the offender. A custodial or non-custodial supervision order may be issued in this situation.
The verdict of guilt and sentence are subject to appeal by the defendant.