A youth court wrongly committed a 13-year-old with learning difficulties, who had been found unfit to plead, to the Crown Court for trial.
TP was 13 years old when he allegedly committed the offences which included robbery, possession of a bladed article and possession of an offensive weapon. The youth court had previously found that he was unfit to stand trial on the basis of a psychiatric report that explained TP “has a mental age much younger than his actual age, shows indications of autism spectrum disorder and has significant learning, cognition and other issues”[paragraph 6]. However, he was committed to the Crown Court under section 91 Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act (PCC(S)A) 2000 (grave crimes).
The High Court allowed the judicial review for two reasons:
- The youth court had no power to commit TP to the Crown Court. TP was unfit to plead and a Crown Court was bound to come to the same conclusion, so he could not be found guilty for the purposes of section 51A(3) Crime and Disorder Act (CDA) 1998.
- In addition, “it could not reasonably be concluded that a sentence of two years’ detention or more for the offences in question could appropriately be imposed in the Crown Court” [paragraph 9 – pursuant to section 91 PCC(S)A 2000 ]. The High Court reiterated the criteria of R (H, A and O) v Southampton Youth Court  2 Cr App R(S) 30 and stated that “the emphasis on sentencing young offenders is on rehabilitation” and that cases should ordinarily be dealt with in the youth court.
This case is an indication to practitioners that if a defendant is not fit to plead in the youth court it is difficult to see how they can be tried in the Crown Court as section 51A(3) CDA 1998 (sending to the Crown Court) requires a finding of guilt. An unfit defendant cannot be found guilty.
The High Court reiterated the fundamental principle that those aged 15 and under should be dealt with in the youth court, where the emphasis is on rehabilitation, and it is rare for those aged under 15 to be given custodial sentences:
“It is the very strong policy of the legislature and of the courts not to commit to the Crown Court or to sentence to custody those who are under the age of 15. …The emphasis in sentencing young offenders is on rehabilitation and … such cases should be dealt with in the Youth Court.” [paragraph 10]
This case provides further evidence of the need for specific statutory processes to deal with unfitness to plead and those children unable to effectively participate in court proceedings. The only disposals available in th youth court (and edult magistrates’ court) when dealing with an unfit defendant are a guardianship order (only available for defendants aged 16 and over)1 or a hospital order2. This creates the situation that arose in this case where the court had no option and could only impose an absolute discharge on this unfit defendant.