Our lawyers are dealing with an increasing number of cases in the criminal courts where there are vulnerable clients with mental health issues.
In a recent case, our Shelley Dundee and Counsel Alexander Pritchard-Jones represented a vulnerable male adult facing an allegation of assault upon a residential care home worker.
In the Crown Court, there is a procedure to consider a client’s “fitness to plead”, that being, their ability to understand and follow Court proceedings. There is no such procedure in the Magistrates Court and therefore, even if a Solicitor has concerns about their client, the Court expect a plea to be entered.
In this case, our lawyer had concerns in the Magistrates Court that our client was “unfit”. A not guilty plea was entered and the case was adjourned for trial.
We obtained medical records and an opinion from an intermediary specialising in Autism and learning difficulties, who confirmed that our client would require support at trial.
A psychiatrist was asked to provide an opinion and he found our client to have significant difficulties including Autism and severe Anxiety. His report was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) requesting an urgent review but no response was received and the trial went ahead.
At the Magistrates court trial, despite extensive preparation and draft directions on the law of self-defence, including its application to those with mental health conditions, our client was convicted before a District Judge.
Our client’s parents remained concerned and they requested that we lodge an appeal against the conviction to the Crown Court on our client’s behalf. We held a conference with our client and his parents to discuss the possible outcomes, risks and benefits and made sure that our client was given advice in simple but comprehensive terms along with his parents. We supported the appeal given the client’s difficulties which were clearly outlined by experts. Throughout proceedings, our client’s already heightened anxiety levels were increasing due to stress.
Once the case was in the Crown Court, further psychiatric reports were obtained and formal “fitness to plead” procedures were considered. Both experts agreed that our client was “unfit” and would not be able to properly follow Court proceedings. The further reports were sent to the CPS and we received no reply.
The Court listed the case for a preliminary hearing to discuss the medical reports that we had obtained and the day before the hearing, the CPS finally confirmed that they would not oppose the appeal and our client’s conviction should be set aside.
Thirteen months since our client was first interviewed by police, proceedings finally came to an end.
This article is intended to give an overview of what was a very involved case. There were numerous hearings both in the Magistrates and the Crown Court and a vast amount of work was undertaken by this firm and Counsel in order to achieve the end-result.
Despite the Magistrates Court currently lacking procedures to consider a defendant’s “fitness to plead”, as shown in this case, there are ways that mental health issues can be explored. It is important to obtain expert legal advice when facing criminal charges, particularly in relation to vulnerable individuals who have health difficulties.