Deciphering the composition of section 79- assessment panels in the criminal procedure amendment act 4 of 2017

  • Letitia Pienaar


Section 79 of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 provides for the appointment of mental health professionals to assess an accused’s fitness to stand trial and/or criminal capacity if the court orders such an enquiry in terms of sections 77 and 78 of the Criminal Procedure Act. In terms of section 79, one mental health professional must assess an accused charged with a non-violent offence, whereas a panel of such professionals must assess an accused charged with an offence involving serious violence.

The legislative provisions regarding the appointment of mental health professionals to a section 79-assessment panel are not without ambiguity. Section 79(1)(b) read with section 79(13) is problematic. Directives issued by the National Prosecuting Authority in terms of section 79(13) do not aid in clarifying the legal position either. The main point of contention is whether a section 79-assessment panel must consist of a minimum of two or three psychiatrists. This ambiguity creates challenges for presiding officers tasked with appointing section 79-assessment panels. When presiding officers appoint these panels incorrectly, it causes delays in the assessment process and the delivery of justice to the accused and the victim.

The court considered the interplay between section 79(1)(b) and section 79(13) in S v Pedro 2015 1 SACR 41 (WCC). The judgment highlights the need to clarify the position in the Criminal Procedure Act regarding the appointment of section 79-assessment panels. This case provided the impetus for the amendment of section 79 through the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act 4 of 2017.

This contribution explores the composition of section 79-assessment panels as provided for in the Criminal Procedure Act. Section 79(1)(b) and the seemingly contradictory provisions contained in section 79(13) are discussed. The S v Pedro judgment is discussed with a specific focus on the court’s interpretation of the interplay between these two provisions. Following the S v Pedro judgment, the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act 4 of 2017 amended section 79. This contribution explores the clarifying provisions of the Amendment Act regarding the composition of assessment panels.

Keywords: Criminal Procedure Amendment Act 4 of 2017, assessment panels,  psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, section 79 of the Criminal Procedure Act, fitness to stand trial, criminal capacity, S v Pedro.


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eISSN: 1727-3781