Why Does an Individual Need to be Fit to Stand Trial?
In order to stand trial – this means to be tried in court for the crime they have been charged with – a person needs to be mentally fit.
A person suffering from a mental illness at the time of trial can be ruled unfit to stand trial, but being mentally ill is often not enough to convince a judge.
The individual must lack rationality and the capability of understanding the court process. Being fit to stand trial is important because the individual is likely going to be questioned in court and their testimony is going to be assessed.
If this individual is mentally incompetent, the evidence adduced will be tainted because their understanding, awareness and knowledge of the proceeding is absent.
How they act, what they say, and what they remember is likely to be puzzling because they lack the standard of mental stability and competency required when engaging in a court proceeding.
Therefore, an individual must be fit to stand trial to ensure they understand the trial process and that their testimony is wholesome, sincere and valid.
The Definition of Unfit to Stand Trial
According to Section 672.22 of the Criminal Code, an accused is presumed fit to stand trial unless the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the accused is unfit to stand trial. This presumption is rebutted if:
- The individual cannot comprehend why they are in a courtroom or what the court process involves
- The individual cannot understand what they are charged with, what pleas are available and what the consequences of their court actions and decisions are (i.e. what happens if they lie, what happens if they plead guilty)
- The individual cannot communicate their opinions with their lawyer or how they want to proceed with the case
Fitness to Stand Trial Assessment
When an individual is charged with a criminal offence and suffers from a mental disorder at the time of trial, their fitness to stand trial may be debated.
An individual whose fitness to stand trial has been questioned will undergo a fitness assessment – an evaluation conducted by the judge.
When this evaluation takes place, the actual trial takes a back seat until the judge completes the assessment. This evaluation typically involves a three-stage process:
1.Stage One :
Though the actual assessment will be conducted by a psychiatrist, the decision to send the individual to a psychiatrist rests on the judge.
In order to do so, the judge must be convinced that there are reasonable grounds to doubt the individual’s mental capacity.
If the judge is convinced that the individual is mentally unwell, an order is prepared to send the individual to a psychiatrist for an assessment.
This stage focuses on the psychiatrist’s role. They must evaluate the individual’s mental state; it is crucial that the psychiatrist assesses the individual’s current state.
Even though the individual may have been suffering from a mental disorder while committing the crime, they can still stand trial if they are mentally fit at the time of trial.
The psychiatrist will prepare an opinion in regards to the individual’s ability to stand trial and present a report to the judge.
3. Stage Three:
The last stage is known as a “fitness hearing.” The judge reviews the psychiatrist’s report and the evidence to arrive at a decision.
The psychiatrist’s opinion is highly influential, but the final verdict rests with the judge. If a judge believes the individual is fit to stand trial, the criminal trial will commence.
On the other end, if a judge deems the individual unfit or mentally unwell, they cannot proceed to trial.
What Happens if Unfit to Stand Trial?
Where a judge rules an individual unfit to stand trial, the actual criminal trial remains on hold. Being unfit to stand trial does not infer that the individual will never stand trial, rather the individual cannot stand trial until they are deemed competent enough to continue to trial.
In circumstances where a judge has ruled an individual mentally unfit, the Crown or the defendant’s lawyer may seek an order referred to as a “treatment order.”
This order is made by a judge and requires that the individual be given psychiatric treatment to be made fit to stand trial.
A treatment order is a mandatory order imposed on the individual; they have no option, but to abide by the treatment.
Since the order is restraining, it is only made if a judge is satisfied by the psychiatrist’s opinion that the individual is unlikely to become fit without treatment, the treatment is the least invasive form, the benefit outweighs the harm, and the individual will be expected to be fit within 60 days.
Unfit to Stand Trial vs. Not Criminally Responsible
A ruling of “unfit to stand trial” is not the same as a ruling of “not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder.”
The former can be reversed if the individual is deemed competent to stand trial and even if an individual is fit to stand trial, the defence of mental disorder can still be pleaded and possibly, can even succeed.
In addition, the former focuses on the individual’s current mental state at the time of trial; whereas, the latter focuses on the individual’s general mental state, with a specific focus on their mental state at the time of committing the crime.
Reversing an Unfit to Stand Trial Ruling
A judge can re-evaluate a ruling if the individual is deemed fit to stand trial. Such a change in assessment is not always a lengthy process, it may occur within a short time frame as well – from a few days to weeks.
Once the individual shows a basic understanding of the court process and can demonstrate rationality, a judge will likely deem them fit to stand trial.
When reversing this ruling, a judge does not need to be convinced that the individual no longer suffers from a mental disorder, rather than the individual is competent enough to stand trial despite the mental disorder.
The individual acting in their own best interest is not a required factor in order to be considered mentally fit; the individual must merely prove that they can communicate with their lawyer and can comprehend the consequences of their legal decisions. With that being said, if you need help, you hire a good Toronto Criminal Lawyer to solve your issue.
Frequently Asked Question
Can a Mentally Ill Person Stand Trial?
Depends on the mental illness and the severity. For example, an individual who suffers from anxiety or depression is classified to have a mental illness, but they can fully understand their case and communicate with their lawyer.
If the mental illness has the affect of not allowing the accused to understand their case or effectively communicating with their lawyer, than a fitness assessment will be ordered by the judge.
A psychiatrist will determine if the accused is fit to stand trial.
What does Unfit to Plead Mean?
Unfit to plead, also known as unfit to stand trial, means that the accused is unable to properly defend against their charge or tell their lawyer what they want to do with their case, because of a mental illness.
How do you determine Competency to Stand Trial?
An inquiry of competency to stand trial begins with a judge having reasonable grounds to believe the accused meets the definition of being unable to stand trial.
This includes: not being able to understand why they are in the courtroom, the concept of a courtroom, what they are charged with, the pleas they may enter, the consequences of pleading guilty, or the inability to communicate with their lawyer about their case.
If the judge believes any of the above is true, the judge will order a fitness assessment. A fitness assessment order can be made at any point and usually entails sending the accused to a psychiatric hospital. In some courthouses, a psychiatrist is available and can occur the same day.
Who can do a Competency Evaluation?
When the judge orders a fitness assessment, which is an evaluation of competency, a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist will do the evaluation.
What determines Legal Competence?
Legal competence is when the accused can understand the basics of their case and the surrounding circumstances.
This includes understanding the concept of a courtroom, why they are there, their charge, and pleas they may enter into.
It also includes being able to effectively communicate with their lawyer about their case and their options with the case’s direction. The law assumes every adult it mentally competent until proven otherwise.
Why the process of Competency Restoration is Important?
Competency restoration is a process used when an accused is unfit to stand trial, typically from a mental illness.
In order for the accused to continue with the legal process of their case, they must be restored to competency.
To be considered restored and competent to stand trial they must understand their case, their legal proceedings, and be able to effectively communicate with their lawyer.
It is important because it supports the full notion of the criminal justice system, which is to allow the accused to have a fair trial and to ensure justice is served.
Can a Psychotic Person be Competent to Stand Trial?
If a person has committed an offence under the Criminal Code and suffers from a mental health problem, or deemed “psychotic”, his or her fitness to stand trial may be questioned.
The term "fit to stand trial" refers to the mental state of the defendant at the time of the legal proceedings. This individual will than have a fitness assessment to determine the next steps of how the case will proceed, and if they are able to stand trial.