Former dictator Slobodan Milosevic may be forced to take his own defence lawyer – a move he has said he would never make.

Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic is fit to stand trial on war crimes charges but he might have a defence lawyer forced upon him to ensure the much-delayed case proceeds, judges ruled yesterday.

The judges at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague ordered a cardiology report to determine whether Milosevic is too sick to run his own defence. Milosevic, who is representing himself in the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, said on Monday that he would never agree to the imposition of a defence counsel.

But if he is found to be seriously ill, the judges say they might appoint a defence lawyer to take over the case, whether the 62-year-old president likes it or not.

Yesterday’s judgment appears to have ended speculation that the trial will collapse owing to Milosevic’s failing health. The judges ordered the trial to resume next Wednesday when Milosevic can begin his defence against charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

The former president has insisted on running his own defence, refusing to take a lawyer, and the trial has already lost 66 days due to his bouts of flu and high blood pressure.

Milosevic was due to have begun his defence case this week, after a four-month break, but on Monday he appeared in the dock beetroot-faced, claiming he had been brought to court against medical advice. The three-strong panel of judges has heeded that advice, in giving him the rest of the week off, but has put off, for the moment, the key decision of whether to deny him the right to defend himself.

There are good reasons for caution. One of the bedrocks of international law is that an accused person is entitled to defend themselves.

Another principle is that a defendant cannot be held responsible for their failing health – one reason why, despite his many ailments, judges have in past months refused to consider imposing a lawyer.