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Is Ram fit to stand trial?

In this video, Soumya AK discusses a murder case and whether the accused is fit to stand trial.
Hi, my name is Soumya AK, and I’m a research associate with the mental health and criminal justice team at Project 39A, a criminal justice program at National Law University Delhi. We will be continuing our discussion on fitness to stand trial today. In the first video, we discussed the basic concepts and in this video, I’ll try to discuss some of the practical challenges that lawyers usually face in these cases. Machal Lalung was 23 years old when he was arrested. He was behind bars for 54 years, despite no specific charges being framed against him. Let’s take another case. Deepak Joshi, an under trial with intellectual disability was behind bars for over 40 years.
Again, no charges were framed and no hearing took place. Both these cases show us how the system tends to forget persons with mental illness, and they remain lodged in jails for years as undertrial prisoners. But the problem with fitness cases is more than just being forgotten. Now, typically in raising this claim, lawyers look at the nature of the offense, which is murder in this case, making it crucial for a lawyer to ensure that their client is in a position to instruct the counsel, understand the proceedings properly. In short, be able to enter their defense. The first step is to gauge whether this case is one that requires our attention and the answer is yes.
Here is why, as his counsel, you don’t have any information from him. You find that he’s not interacting with others, he’s not sleeping well, he’s missing his meals. Now to get a better sense of the situation, you will need information from collateral sources. More often than not, lawyers do not undertake this exercise, or when they do, they find that there isn’t a lot of documented information or collateral sources to rely on. And that seems to be the case here as well. No living relatives His deceased wife’s family members refuse to cooperate, for obvious reasons. He was a casual laborer so there is no steady employer. So what do we look at next? We turn to jail records, jail documentation.
This is to understand whether the prisoner is on medication or has been on medication. It’s to understand whether he has been in and out of the mental health ward, and so talking to prison authorities is a great source of information. So we have all the information. We write an application and your role as the defense lawyer is to present this information about Ram’s inability to enter a defense and therefore be unfit to stand trial. As discussed in the previous video, it must appear to the court that the accused is of unsound mind and therefore incapable of making their defense. And this is the first challenge.
The first challenge is clearing this uncertain threshold, and this is precisely why having as much collateral information as possible is important. Now, if the court is convinced that this merits an inquiry, then Ram will be referred to a government appointed psychiatrist. And here is where we encounter our second challenge. There are no prescribed timelines. How long must the accused be observed? In how many days must report be submitted? However, section 102 of the Mental Health Care Act provides some guidance. The section states that the mental health professional must carry out an assessment within 10 days and submit the report. I have to point out a related issue with this assessment.
There are no standardised clinical tools or assessments that are used by psychiatrists in India. So now the court is in receipt of the psychiatrist evaluation and then must finally determine whether or not Ram is fit to stand trial. This is our third challenge. There is no clarity on what this judicial determination entails. How is the judge reading the clinical report? What factors are considered by the court to determine that an accused lacks the ability ability to enter a defense? Considering the nature of inquiry and the subject matter at hand, it is important for the court to be both able to understand the report and factor the relevant observations in its judicial determination.
I must also highlight that these reports are usually brief and do not outline the basis of the opinion i.e, what were the questions that were asked? What were the assessments that were conducted? When were they conducted? What proformas were used? What were the psychiatrist’s analysis and observations? So typically, these reports tend to be a page long. They only outline the psychiatrist’s final conclusions on the accused’s unsoundness and unfitness. Now, the lack of clarity on both what goes into the final report, and the court’s read of it creates problems for the defence in challenging it. Now, can this be mitigated by the absentee defence export? In most cases, the defence lawyer does not seek a separate expert opinion.
This is problematic, as the accused has no way of presenting expert evidence. I must also point out that access to prisoners is limited to the legal representative, and it is not possible for the psychiatrist to evaluate and meet with the prisoner face to face. And this is why you must collect all information from the accused as well as collateral sources, and have the copy of the evaluation to be reviewed by the defence expert. A careful reading of these documents, along with your expert’s opinion, will aid you in your cross examination.
The aim of the cross-examination is not to negate the report, but cast doubts on the basis of the report by commenting on the procedure contesting the nature of assessment, asking probing questions on the way the assessment was conducted and the analysis undertaken by the psychiatrist. Now, if Ram is found unfit to stand trial, he will be transferred to the mental health ward within the prison or to a mental health establishment. And this is where the risk of delay and non resumption of trial arises. Is the onus on the court to resume this trial ? Is it up to the defence lawyer to file an application? Again, the Mental Health Care Act of 2017 gives you some guidance.
It tells you that it is the duty of the medical officer in charge to submit a report once every six months to the court on the mental and physical health of the accused. However, the cases of Machal Lalung Deepak Joshi and many others show us that they are forgotten and their cases are never taken up. As the defense lawyer, you must not only ensure that you raise an unfitness claim when it appears that your client may be unable to enter their defense, but you must also ensure that they’re being treated where it is treatable and that trial resumes once they are found fit to stand trial. I hope that you found this video helpful.
Next up in this module is understanding the forensic assessment that is undertaken by psychiatrists in India. Thank you.

Given the paucity of information, how would you go about inquiring into Ram’s mental health concerns? If you found that Ram had a mental health concern, how would you go about arguing against Ram’s fitness to stand trial?

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Forensic Mental Health and Criminal Justice

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