Fitness to Plead: The Pritchard Criteria

It is interesting that the question of the accused being unfit is dealt with using the 1836 criteria of R v. Pritchard. In Pritchard, the accused was deaf, unable to speak and was charged with bestiality.

In Pritchard the jury were directed that in order to be sane the accused must be, “Of sufficient intellect to comprehend the course of proceedings in the trial so as to make a proper defence, to know that he may challenge  any of you to whom he may object and to comprehend the details of the evidence.”

Expert witnesses who are instructed to examine the accused regarding fitness to plead must therefore address these criteria. The accused should have the ability to plead to the indictment, understand the course of the proceedings, to instruct a lawyer, to challenge a juror and to understand the evidence.

In John M(2003) the criteria were further expounded. The jury were directed that it was sufficient for the defence to persuade the jury on the balance of probabilities that any one of the following things was beyond the defendant’s capability: (1) understanding the charges; (2) deciding whether to plead guilty or not; (3) exercising his right to challenge jurors; (4) instructing solicitors and counsel; (5) following the course of proceedings; and (6) giving evidence in his own defence.

The criticism is that the Pritchard criteria set too high a threshold for a finding of unfitness to plead. The concern remains that there are significant numbers of mentally ill defendants who undergo trial and may be doing so unfairly.