Fitness to plead

In England and Wales, the mental capabilities required of a defendant for a fair trial are enshrined in the concept of fitness to plead, a legal concept formalised in the 19th Century. Findings of unfitness are rare: yet significant numbers of defendants under a disability continue to stand trial. Central to the concept is the ability to follow evidence and proceedings in court. This is currently assessed subjectively by clinicians, with judges making the final determination of unfitness.

Dr Nigel Blackwood is developing a structured, standardised research measure for the assessment of unfitness; using a filmed vignette of court proceedings. The research team will examine performance on the measure in groups of subjects; some with learning disabilities, some with menthal health problems and some with neither of these.

This measure has the potential to improve the fairness of the administration of justice in these vulnerable groups. The research will also inform developments in law pertaining to fitness, currently under review by the Law Commission.

Project details



Dr Nigel Blackwood, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London

Funding programme

Law in Society

Grant amount and duration


January 2009 - December 2012