Feb 15, 2021 by Foresight

Fitness to Plead: What Exactly Is It and How Is It Applied?

In short, 'fitness to plead' refers to a defendant's capacity to fully comprehend the course of criminal proceedings, based on their mental health and the acknowledgement of any learning difficulty disorders they might be suffering from.

In England and Wales, the litmus test from a purely legal perspective derives entirely from the landmark ruling surrounding the 'Alderson B. in R v Pritchard' case.

The former was the deaf and mute defendant whose sanity was famously brought into question in March 1836, to ultimately determine his ability to fully grasp the gist of the criminal case brought against him at the time of his trial. The outcome of which still stands to this very day as the legal benchmark by which a defendant's state of mind is seemingly judged.

What is the Purpose of a Fitness to Plead Assessment?

As a legal procedure, the overall intention of fulfilling the obligations of a fitness to plead assessment is to create parity and transparency between the need to protect a defendant who has, potentially, committed no crime yet is perceived to be unfit to plead at their impending trial, and the need to safeguard the general public from a defendant who has potentially committed an injurious act which would constitute a crime if done with the requisite mens rea.

Divided into two stages, these are highlighted as follows:

  1. Whether the offender is under a disability (i.e. whether they are 'unfit' to plead (section 4 Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act 1964); and if so
  2. Whether they committed the act/made the omission charged against the individual (section 4A Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act 1964)

Fitness to Plead. Past, Present and Future Cases

In a nutshell, Edward Hall Alderson was set to be tried for a capital crime, ahead of which the judge demanded a jury to be assembled. The reason being to establish whether or not the accused 'was mute by the visitation of God'.

Said jury found that he was, so were subsequently sworn to determine whether he was able to plead. Agreeing that he was, the defendant pleaded 'not guilty'. Meaning that the jury then had to ascertain if Alderson B. was ‘now sane or not’.

By 'sane', this essentially translated as giving consideration to the accused, to ascertain if they possessed sufficient intellect to comprehend both the details of the evidence brought against him and the course of the proceedings. So as to make a proper defence and to challenge any juror he might wish to object to.

The jury found the accused sane of mind, thus the prisoner was detained.

'The Pritchard Criteria'

The pivotal points taken from this historic case - and which paved the way for future reckonings, and which ostensibly remain the underpinnings of today's cases - were the triumvirate cited beneath. All which hinge on the verification of a defendant's state of mind ahead of a criminal hearing.

  1. Whether or not the defendant is mute of malice or not.
  2. Whether they can plead to the indictment or not.
  3. Whether they are of sufficient intellect to comprehend the course of the proceedings in the trial so as to make a proper defence. To know that they might challenge the jury to whom they may object, and to comprehend the details of the evidence.

Naturally, over time, this trio of uncompromising precursors have been subjected to more modern terminology makeovers. Ergo, here and now the actual provisos read more like this.

Is the nature of the offence understood by the defendant? A fundamental part of the assessment process rests with testing the defendant to ensure they fully comprehend the charges they face.

Is the evidence set out before them, clear to the defendant? Bearing in mind that the defendant might suffer from significant literacy and/or mental health problems, does this impinge on their capabilities to interpret the key points of a trial.

Is the defendant in a position to provide advice to their elected legal team? An expert psychologist will be tasked with evaluating whether a defendant can provide what's considered a coherent explanation of events.

In order to make a proper defence, is the defendant suitably equipped to understand the course of proceedings? Under the guidance of the 'Pritchard Criteria', is the defendant able to make a proper defence. And is there a good chance that their version of events will pass a feasibility test by a future jury.

Does the defendant understand the advice they'll receive? Will the advice that the defendant is privy to during a criminal hearing be accessible and relatable to their mindset, and information that they're likely to be able to consider fully.

Is the legal process beyond the defendant's intellectual realm?  Will a defendant understand what the function of key figures are at a criminal hearing?

Should the defendant not be able to pacify any of the above points, then they'll be categorised as 'unfit to plead'.

When is a Fitness to Plead Report Typically Required?

A fitness to plead report is traditionally sought before a defendant is put on trial/ahead of a hearing into alleged crimes committed by the accused party.

What Information is Included in a Fitness to Plead Report?

For the most part, a fitness to plead report's findings comprises of the key information gathered as a result of applying the principles of the abovementioned 'Pritchard Criteria' test.

This data tends to incorporate written documentation pertaining to both the nature of the alleged offence, along with inclusion of clinical diagnosis performed by two Independent medical professionals. Either in written or oral form.

The results of which ultimately seek to determine if a defendant benefits from the sound mental health required to give cogent accounts - and supporting evidence - of the alleged acts they are suspected of committing.

More normally the clinical evidence is compiled by a psychiatrist. However, a significant revision under the Mental Health Act 2007 gave rise to many of the roles under the Mental Health Act 1983 to be undertaken by a wider range of professionals in henceforth. With the term, 'responsible medical officer' being systematically usurped by the proclamation of, 'responsible clinician'.

All of which means medical practitioners from other professions, such as psychology, occupational therapy and social work, are recognized as having the necessary expertise to take clinical responsibility for an individual patient/defendant.

If you have a requirement for a fitness to plead report, we can facilitate this through our nationwide panel of psychologists who you can instruct today by emailing


0330 088 9000


Stay up-to-date with all the latest news in the industry by signing up to our newsletter. You're welcome to unsubscribe at any time and we'll always treat your personal details with the utmost care.