Abuser who was unfit to stand trial still found guilty by jury
One way that abusers sometimes seem to escape justice is by being deemed “unfit to stand trial”. This happens when a defendant is found unable to participate in a trial because of health reasons, such as a mental illness, that prevent them from understanding and responding to the charges against them.
Those who experience child abuse are often unable to disclose the abuse until much later on in life. This means many perpetrators of abuse are not brought to face criminal charges, until many years after their crimes were committed.
The effect of this is that perpetrators can be quite elderly by the time they face criminal charges. As a result, there are often arguments they are suffering from age-related mental illnesses, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and so cannot face a criminal trial.
When this happens, it can be devastating for a survivor who has made the decision to report to the police, only to find out that the criminal justice system will not bring their abuser to justice.
However, there is a rarely used legal route that enables a criminal court to make a finding against a perpetrator who is unfit to stand trial: this is called a “trial of issue”.
In a trial of issue, a jury will still hear the evidence against the perpetrator, but often do not hear from the perpetrator themselves. The jury are not able to find the perpetrator “guilty”, but can nonetheless make a finding of fact about whether or not the defendant did the criminal actions of which they are being accused. This is a fine distinction, but means that although the perpetrator cannot be sent to prison after the trial, the court could still order that the perpetrator is sent to a hospital instead of a prison, or that they must be supervised by a social worker for a period of time.
Recently a trial of issue was used successfully in a case against David Prior, an 80 year old man from Palmers Green in London, who was charged with three counts of sexual assault in relation to a girl. The abuse happened in the early 1990s, when Prior was working as a school caretaker in Edmonton.
Prior was deemed unfit to stand trial, which must have been bitterly disappointing for the survivor of his abuse. However, with the help of Essex police, the criminal proceedings went ahead against Prior in the form of a trial of issue and in February 2023, the jury found that Prior had committed the sexual abuse that he had been charged with. This is an usual but excellent outcome, given Prior was not fit to stand trial.
I hope that the survivor feels very proud for having come forward and reached the stage where they have publicly exposed Prior’s crimes, even if they are disappointed that he could not face a full trial.
There are many other survivors of abuse who will be surprised to learn that a trial of issue is possible, even when a defendant is not fit to stand trial and I urge them all to contact the police to discuss whether this might be possible in their case.