What is Competency to Stand Trial?

Though our legal system can be imperfect, it is designed to be fair.  We are supposed to be “innocent until proven guilty” and have a fair chance to defend ourselves in court before a judge or a jury that will be objective.  But what happens if we are accused of a crime and don’t understand how the court system works, can’t communicate well enough to explain our side of the story, or have a mental health or medical condition that prevents us from being rational during our court proceedings?

We believe that people must be “competent to stand trial” in order to have the same opportunity to defend themselves as everybody else.  There is a higher chance that a mistake will be made and an innocent person will be found guilty if the court allows an incompetent person to go through the process.  If you think that someone facing a criminal charge does not understand the legal process, is not rational due to a medical or mental health condition, or is not able to work effectively with his or her attorney, you can raise the issue with the court (either by talking to the attorney involved with the case or, if you are an attorney, by bringing a motion before the court for evaluation of competency to stand trial).  There are specially trained forensic mental health psychologists and psychiatrists who work privately or for the court who can evaluate the person and make recommendations to the judge about treatment, accommodations to help the person in court, or even in rare situations, dismissing the case if the judge finds that the person will never be competent enough to have a fair trial.

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