The Unfitness of an Accused Person to Plead | Northern Ireland Law Commission
Skip navigation

The Unfitness of an Accused Person to Plead

The publication of the Report on Unfitness to Plead in July 2013 completes this Project. The Report contains our recommendations to Government for reform.

The law in relation to unfitness to plead concerns the mental state of an accused person at the time of or during the course of his or her criminal trial. The effect of the law is not to remove every individual who may be experiencing difficulties in relation to his or her mental state from the criminal justice system, but rather to remove those who cannot effectively participate in their trial as he or she does not understand the nature or purpose of the proceedings against him or her.

The Commission has been requested by the Department of Justice, as part of the Commission's Second Programme of Law Reform, to consider the law relating to unfitness to plead in the Crown Court and Magistrate's court in Northern Ireland. A consultation paper was published on 16 July 2012 to seek the views of consultees on a number of issues raised in the terms of reference of this project which required to Commission to examine the following:

  • Review the current law in the Crown Court and the Magistrates’ Courts (but not Youth Courts) in Northern Ireland in relation to unfitness to plead;
  • Review the current operation of the Pritchard test: a common law test which sets criteria against which unfitness to plead can be assessed;
  • To consider whether a test based on the mental capacity test which is contained in the Mental Capacity Act 2005 would be a better approach for assessing unfitness to plead or whether tests which exist in jurisdictions such as Scotland or Jersey would be better options for Northern Ireland;
  • To consider whether restrictions in relation to the types of medical evidence that are currently sought to assist with the determination of unfitness to plead should be relaxed;
  • To consider the current operation of the Article 49A hearing, the purpose of which is to determine whether an unfit accused person has carried out the act or made the omission with which he or she has been charged.

Additionally, the consultation paper sought the views of consultees in relation to whether the law which is applicable in the Crown Court should be extended to the Magistrate's Court. Also, related issues such as joint trials, remittance for trial and the use of "special measures" during an assessment of unfitness to pleas are examined.

The Commission also formally consulted on the Equality Impact Assessment regarding this project.

Related documents
Report: Unfitness to Plead - NILC 16 (2013)
Report on Unfitness to Plead Equality Impact Assessment
Consultation Paper: The Unfitness of an Accused Person to Plead NILC13 (2012)
Equality Impact Assessment on proposals on the Unfitness of an Accused Person to Plead