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Fitness to stand trial under Indian law

Maitreyi Misra discusses fitness to stand trial under Indian law which covered under the CrPC, 1973
Hi, everyone. My name is Maitreyi Misra. I head the work on mental health and criminal justice at Project 39A, a criminal justice program at the National Law University, Delhi. In this lecture, we will discuss the law relating to fitness to stand trial in India. The law on fitness to stand trial is contained in Chapter 25 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973. The inquiry into an accused person’s fitness to stand trial is undertaken to ensure that the constitutionally protected fundamental right to a fair trial is fulfilled, to protect the decision making autonomy of the accused, and to guard against the risk of erroneous convictions. Fitness inquiries are undertaken under s. 328 or s.
329 Of the code where the accused person is either of unsound mind or has intellectual disability, which is referred to as mental retardation in these provisions . Unsoundness of mind within this inquiry has mostly been interpreted to mean mental illness. A fitness inquiry is warranted when the magistrate holding an inquiry has reason to believe under s.328 or when it appears to the magistrate or the court presiding over a trial under s.329 that an accused person is of unsound mind or has intellectual disability and consequently may be unable to make the defense.
The evidentiary threshold to initiate a fitness inquiry is lower than that of beyond reasonable doubt and can be undertaken if on the basis of witness testimony or documentary evidence, it can be inferred that an accused person is of unsound mind or is a person with intellectual disability. If there is evidence to show either of the two, the judge has to necessarily refer the person to a mental health professional from a government hospital for further assessment. In other words, these are mandatory provisions. And if such referral is not made despite there being evidence regarding unsoundness of mind or intellectual disability, the trial may be rendered null and void.
The finding of the doctor regarding unsoundness of mind can be appealed to a board constituted under these provisions. After this referral and clinical determination is the judicial inquiry to determine whether such conditions render the person unable to make the defense. The phrase inability to make defense has not found any consistent, principled understanding in Indian jurisprudence. But it does include certain characteristics. These are- the ability of the accused person to answer the charges against them, appreciate the evidence that has been presented against them and understand the proceedings in court against them.
It has to be kept in mind that while they may overlap, a fitness inquiry is ultimately a judicial decision aided by the clinical determination on mental illness or intellectual disability by a mental health professional. In effect, while an inquiry by a mental health professional is warranted, if the evidence so suggests, the ultimate determination, whether the accused person is fit or unfit to stand trial, is a judicial one. A clinical determination examines the cognitive functioning of the accused in the context of a trial and a judicial determination tests such functioning against the legal requirements of a fitness inquiry. If an accused person is found to be unfit to stand trial due to mental illness, the trial must be suspended.
The trial resumes only after it is determined that the accused has become fit to stand trial again. However, when it comes to intellectual disability, the law requires putting an end to the trial and discharging the person who may be detained later on in safe custody or may be released to family or friends. In recommending this amendment to the code, the Law Commission of India reasoned that with respect to intellectual disability, the governing principle is that the disability is not treatable because of which the person would never regain the requisite capacity to stand trial as such. The Law Commission reasoned that liberty considerations must be given overriding value.
As regards to which party can request a fitness inquiry, it has been held that given the importance of the right being protected, that is the right to fair trial, the onus to ensure that the accused is fit to stand trial lies on all parties i.e. the defense, the prosecution and the court have the responsibility to ensure that a person with a mental illness or intellectual disability is fit to stand trial and make the defense. Where the accused person has been sent back to prison or to a mental health hospital for treatment and for them to regain fitness.
It is the duty of the medical officer in charge to ensure that once every six months, a special report regarding the mental and physical condition of such person is sent to the court under whose orders such person is detained. It should be noted that under Indian law, there is no limit to the length of time for which the child can remain suspended. It is therefore entirely possible for trials to be suspended for even more than a year before the accused person is found fit again and the trial resumes. With this, I end this video, thank you for watching this. The next video will discuss the practical challenges that lawyers may face during a fitness inquiry. Thank you once again.

What implications do fitness inquiries have for a trial and what interests are such inquiries meant to safeguard?

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Forensic Mental Health and Criminal Justice

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