Fitness to Plead: The Pritchard Criteria

What happens when the suspect in a murder trial is unable to understand the trial process? And what has that got to do with a man accused of having sex with an animal in 1836?

In October 2012, 65 year-old Colin Hammond was stabbed to death in a street in Fulham, southwest London, by Frederic Russell, a 27 year-old Frenchman who had been in the country for only a few days. The two men were almost certainly complete strangers.

Russell had a history of paranoid schizophrenia but unlike other mentally ill defendants did not respond to treatment. By September 2013, psychiatrists agreed he was so unwell that he was not capable of even giving his lawyers instructions.

When this issue is raised by the prosecution or the defence, the judge has to decide whether the defendant is ‘fit to plead’ using the ‘Pritchard Criteria’, as set out in the case R v Pritchard from 1836.

That case involved a deaf and mute man accused of bestiality. As he could not speak, he was unable to plead ‘not guilty’ (although he could indicate this by a sign, having been educated at the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in London).

It was left to the jury to decide ‘whether he was sane or not’ – meaning whether he could understand the trial proceedings enough to mount a defence to the charge. The judge set out his own three points, which were later turned into the ‘Pritchard Criteria’.*

Under these criteria, the accused is unfit to plead if he or she is unable:

  • to comprehend the course of proceedings on the trial, so as to make a proper defence;
  • to know that he might challenge any jurors to whom he/she may object;
  • to comprehend the evidence; or to give proper instructions to his/her legal representatives

If the judge finds the defendant unfit to plead then a jury is asked to decide whether he ‘did the act’ or not (instead of guilty or not guilty). The defendant can then be detained under the Mental Health Act, put under a supervision and treatment order or given an absolute discharge (meaning no further action).

In the case of Frederic Russell, he was detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act, meaning he can only be released when medical professionals find he is no longer a risk to the public. Theoretically, if his condition improves and he is found ‘fit to plead’ he can then be tried in the normal way (although the sentence is effectively the same).

*Pritchard was found unfit to stand trial and was locked up ‘during His Majesty’s Pleasure’ (His being William IV’s). The judge in R v Pritchard said he had adapted his three points from a similar case, R v Dyson, a few years earlier. Esther Dyson, 26, was accused of murdering her newborn baby daughter by cutting the infant’s head off with a knife at her home in Eccleshill, West Yorkshire. Dyson was both deaf and mute and unable to read or write. According to a report in the York Herald for 26 March 1831:

In consequence of the prisoner labouring under the infirmity of being born deaf and dub, the greatest interest was excited and the galleries were crowded on the opening of court… She is rather tall, and of slender make. She has light hair and complexion, and of rather a pleasing and pensive cast of feature. She was dressed in a  coloured silk bonnet, a light calico printed dress, and a red cloth cloak. She had the appearance of a respectable female in the lower walks of life.

The jury found she was ‘mute by the Visitation of God’ and could not understand the trial (even if she knew right from wrong).

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