Fitness to Proceed | Competency to Stand Trial


At times a forensic psychiatrist may be called on by the court or one of the parties to evaluation a defendant’s competency to stand trial. This evaluation involves a comprehensive assessment of the defendant’s mental status, the defendant’s understanding of the nature and objective of the legal proceedings, and the defendant’s capacity to assist in his or her defense. A competency to stand trial evaluation may also involve the administration of specialized psychological tests, depending on the particular clinical issue at hand (e.g., mental retardation, malingering).

When a Competency to Stand Trial Evaluation is Necessary

When a legitimate question arises as to competency, the defendant has a right to a hearing to determine fitness to stand trial. All trial courts have authority to order psychological evaluations of defendants, and in many states, an evaluation is automatic once a party raises the competency issue. Judges are to give great weight to the results of an evaluation, but can consider other factors, too, like the defendant’s demeanor in court. Among the points a court should consider are whether the defendant can:

  • adequately communicate with defense counsel
  • understand and process information
  • make decisions regarding the case, and
  • understand the elements of the charges, the gravity of the charges, and the possible penalties.

A defendant’s lack of intelligence, education level, language difficulties, and challenges communicating are generally insufficient to support a finding of incompetency.

The Court & Fitness to Proceed

The determination of whether a defendant is competent is left to the judge. The judge must decide competency before trial, as soon as reasonably possible after it comes into question. The prosecution, defense counsel, and even the court can raise the issue at any time. Competency usually comes into doubt when the defendant’s behavior indicates a lack of understanding.

Vivian Shnaidman