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The courts and mental health

Explains what may happen if you're charged with committing a crime, what happens when you to go court, and how your mental health is taken into account.

What is a plea?

If you’re charged with a crime and have to go to court, you’ll be asked whether or not you did the crime. This is called entering a plea.

What happens if I plead guilty?

Pleading guilty means that you admit you did the crime. If you plead guilty, the court will decide what should happen next. This could be a fine or prison sentence, or a community sentence.

What happens if I plead not guilty?

Pleading not guilty means that you say you didn’t do the crime. Or that you did, but you had an excuse which the law recognises as a defence.

The court will then have a trial to decide whether you’re guilty. If the court decides that you are guilty, you’ll be convicted. The court will decide what sentence to give you.

If you plead not guilty and you’re convicted, you may get a longer sentence than if you pleaded guilty. So it’s important to get legal advice from a solicitor before making your plea.

What does 'unfit to plead' mean?

In some cases, the court may assess whether you’re unfit to plead. They’ll decide this by considering whether any of these apply:

  • You can’t understand the meaning of the charge against you
  • You can’t understand what the pleas of ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ mean
  • You can’t instruct a lawyer to represent you

The court will ask for medical evidence to help make this decision. This medical evidence is normally a report by a psychiatrist or psychologist who has examined you.

What happens if the Magistrates' Court decides that I'm unfit to plead?

If the Magistrates’ Court decides that you’re unfit to plead, it could give you a hospital order under section 37 without having a trial. But it cannot give you a section 37/41 order – this is only possible at the Crown Court.

What happens if the Crown Court decides that I'm unfit to plead?

If the Crown Court decides that you're unfit to plead, it will do a trial of the facts and decide whether you did the crime. If it decides you didn't do the crime, it will acquit you.

If it decides you did do the crime, the court can:

  • Give you a hospital order under section 37 or 37/41
  • Give you a supervision order for up to 2 years, which means you'll have to get support or treatment
  • End the prosecution by giving you an absolute discharge

Here's a flowchart showing this process:

This information was published in April 2024. We'll revise it in 2027.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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