Standards for Competency and Insanity in the Legal System

Standardsfor Competency and Insanity in the Legal System


Courtsuse a set of standards to determine the capability of defendants tostand different trials or be held liable for the crimes that theycommitted. The case of Duskyv. the United Statesthat was determined in 1960 provided a criterion that is still usedto assess the competence of the accused persons in the modernjudicial systems. Some of the key aspects considered by the judgesinclude the ability to understand different court processes, thegravity of charges, and make rational decisions that could affect thecourt proceedings or the outcome of the case. Courts assess insanityof defendants, with the objective of determining whether they arecapable of being held guilty of their crimes. However, differentcourts may arrive at different conclusions regarding the defendant’sinsanity, which depends on the type of rule that they decide toapply. Courts consider the influence that a mental illness had on thedefendants’ ability to take actions at the time of the crime.

Keywords: Competency, standards, insanity, criminal liability, rationaldecisions.

Standardsfor Competency and Insanity in the Legal System

Allpeople can engage in criminal activities, but courts are only allowedto try individuals who are competent enough to comprehend theaccusations and the possible outcome of the judicial hearings. Inaddition, individuals who are classified by the court as insanecannot be held guilty of their criminal activities. The termcompetence refers to a legally determined ability of an accusedperson to proceed with the adjudication (Bartol &amp Bartol, 2011).The legal definition of insanity is quite different from thepsychological meaning because it only focuses on the link between themental condition and the criminal activity. This paper will provide adiscussion of the standards used by the legal systems to determinecompetence and insanity.

Criteriafor the Determination of the Level of Competence

Althoughall stakeholders agree that incompetent persons should not be triedin the courts, there is no one-size-fit all competence assessmentinstruments that can be applied in every jurisdiction. However, thefederal and most of the state courts in the U.S. base theirassessment on issues raised in the case of Duskyv. the United States,1960 (Forensic Psychology Education, 2016). Although the case wasdecided several decades ago, the rational and the standard set by thejudges to assess the adjudicative competence is still relevant andwidely used in the modern court proceedings.

Thecriterion for the determination of competency that was established inthe Dusky’s case has several items that should be considered, butfour of them are commonly applied in both the federal and the statecourts. First, the court held that the defendant should have thecapacity to communicate effectively with the defense council (Pirelli&amp Gottdiener, 2012). This standard is based on the fact thatdefendants can only receive fair representation and access to justiceif they are able to furnish their lawyers with all pertinentinformation. The court is mandated to determine the existence of theeffective communication and conclude whether the defendant iscompetent.

Secondly,the court held that the defendant ought to be able to comprehend andprocess information. The assessment of this type of competence isbased on the defendants’ ability to understand the prevailing legalsituation, charges brought against them, and key facts that arerelevant to the ongoing or pending proceedings (FPE, 2016). Theability to process information is considered as a basic requirementfor an individual to be considered competent enough to be tried. Itindicates their ability to understand the legal advice provided bytheir attorneys and the rulings as well as the orders issued by thecourt.

Inthe third standard, the court held that a defendant should have thecapacity to make all decisions regarding the specific case that hasbeen brought before the judges (FPE, 2016). For example, anindividual should be able to select the attorney and witnesses. Inaddition, the accused persons expected to have the mental capacitythat is strong enough to help them decide whether they wish torepresent themselves or to have an attorney.

Thelast standard holds that defendants should demonstrate the ability tocomprehend the key elements of all charges as well as their gravityand possible penalty (Beltrani, Zapf &amp Brown, 2015). In otherwords, the court should not only consider the ability of the accusedto understand the court processes, but it should be concerned abouttheir mental capacity to process information about the weightattached to the accusations that they are facing.

TheRole of the Court in Determining the Level of Competence

Theright of the accused persons to comprehend proceedings that have beenbrought against them is indispensable. Although the lack ofunderstanding of these processes is regarded as the lack ofcompetence, such a decision is left to the discretion of the judges(Beltrani, Zapf &amp Brown, 2015). The significance of the right ofthe accused persons to be exempted from the court processes on thegrounds of incompetence is indicated by the fact that the issue canbe raised at any time, irrespective of whether the case has begun.The defense counsel, prosecutor, or the court can request for thedefendant to be evaluated, especially when they demonstrate the lackof understanding of significant processes or court directions, therevelation of the previous medical conditions, demeanor at trial, andirrational behavior (Beltrani, Zapf &amp Brown, 2015). Although thestandards of competence in the face of the law are well known to thelegal practitioners, it is only the judges who can order for anevaluation and use the findings of a credible assessment to declare adefendant competent or incompetent.

TheDifference between the Determination of Insanity and Competency

Thetwo concepts, insanity and competency, are used interchangeably, butthey are completely different. The level of competence is determinedby the judge preferably before or during the trial, while insanity isdeclared by a jury at the end of the case and it is followed by averdict (FPE, 2016). In addition, the legal basis of the two conceptsis often used to explain the application of different standards whenevaluating defendants. The right to have the level of competencydetermined by the court is guaranteed by the constitution, but theassessment of insanity is based on the state laws. For example, theSixth Amendment requires the courts to determine the competence ofdefendants and give them the chance to select their legal counsel orrepresent themselves (National Juvenile Justice Network, 2012).Consequently, states apply different standards to determine insanitywhile some do not consider mental illness as a defense at all.

Peoplewith mental illness often commit crimes, but their conditions are notautomatically defined as insanity in the legal context. Courtsrequire the services of forensic psychologists to assess whether themental illness played some role in the decline of the defendants`ability to appreciate the gravity of the crime (Bartol &amp Bartol,2011). The standard set by the courts is quite high to an extent thatthe proportion of defendants who are considered not guilty due toinsanity is only one percent (Bartol &amp Bartol, 2011). Some of thekey tools that psychologists use to assess the level of insanityinclude the Rogers Criminal Responsibility Assessment Scale andSlobogin Mental Screening Evaluation” (FPE, 2016). The aim of thetwo tools is to determine a possibility that the defendants were inmental states that influenced them to engage in crimes or limitedtheir capacity to understand that their actions were criminal innature.

Similarto the concept of competence, the courts can arrive at differentdecisions regarding the issue of insanity, depending on the standardor the rules that they use. In most cases, judges apply three ruleswhen assessing insanity and its influence at the time the crime wascommitted. The first rule is “the Model Penal Code Test”, whichhelp the judges assess insanity on the basis of two standards,including the ability of the accused to appreciate criminality at thetime that a given crime was committed and conform their conduct tothe prevailing laws (Finnane, 2012). In addition, the defendantought to have been diagnosed with a mental condition that limitedtheir capacity to determine what is wrong or right.

Thesecond rule is M’Naghten, and it allows judges to declaredefendants to be insane only if they had lost the capacity tocomprehend the nature of their crimes or distinguish the wrong fromthe right at the time of the incident (Finnane, 2012). Theapplication of this rule can result in a court decision holding thatthe accused persons were not guilty since they did not fullycomprehend what they were doing.

Lastly,the court can apply the rule of the irresistible impulse to assessinsanity. This rule holds that defendants can still be held innocentin case they suffering from mental illness that subjected them toduress, irrespective of whether they were able to distinguish betweenthe wrong from the right (Finnane, 2012).


Competenceand insanity are legal constructs that are widely used to determinethe capability of individuals to stand trial or being heldaccountable for their actions. The two concepts are widely used,irrespective of the fact that they are still controversial. The mainstandards used to assess competence include the ability of defendantsto comprehend charges that have been brought against them, the courtprocesses, making rational decisions that could affect the case, andthe gravity as well as the possible penalties. Competence is assessedto determine the ability to stand a court trial. Insanity, on theother hand, is evaluated in order to determine whether the accusedcan be held responsible for their actions.


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Finnane,M. (2012). Irresistible impulse: Historicizing a judicial innovationin Australian insanity jurisprudence. Historyof Psychology,23 (4), 1-27.

ForensicPsychology Education (2016). Forensic psychologists in determininginsanity and competency to stand trial. FPE.Retrieved September 9, 2016, from

NationalJuvenile Justice Network (2012). Competencyto stand trial in juvenile court: Recommendations for policymakers.Washington, DC: National Juvenile Justice Network.

Pirelli,G. &amp Gottdiener, H. (2012). A meta-analytic review of competencyto stand trial research. AmericanPsychology,17 (1), 1-53.