During a criminal trial, a number of legal competencies can occur, making it necessary for the court to order a competency evaluation for the defendant before proceeding with a case. While there can be some exceptions to what that would include, competency evaluations generally involve assessing the present mental state of the defendant, irrespective of what it was when the offence was committed. These competency evaluations determine whether or not the defendant is competent to stand trial, waive certain rights, and plead guilty at the time of trial.

Decision-Making Capabilities of Individual Under Scrutiny

Mental competency assessments are carried out in order to assess the decision-making capability of individuals. Along with a mental status examination, the professionals in charge might also perform a laboratory evaluation and physical examination in some cases to get a better idea of their overall health. However, there are four key mental processing aspects evaluated during these competency evaluations:
1. The ability to understand information about the evaluation process
2. The ability to understand how the competency evaluation would apply to their particular situation
3. The ability to reason with the information provided during the evaluation
4. The ability to make a decision and express it in front of others
In most cases, these competency evaluations are carried out by both physicians and psychologists, with the help of formal assessment tools and directed clinical interviews.

Understanding the Importance of Competency Evaluations

Usually, since these evaluations only assess the present mental competency of a defendant, they can hardly reveal anything incriminating which can be vital to the court evidence. However, comprehensive and focused evaluation of a criminal defendant can involve looking for deeper concerns.
In competency to stand trial evaluation, a physician or psychologist might delve deeper to understand the defendant’s memory of the offense or his or her behavior at that time. This will help in determining whether the defendant is in a position to assist their attorney in preparing an adequate defense for themselves. Similarly, when checking competency to plead guilty, physicians and psychologists might try to understand whether the defendant realizes the full implication of their pleas.

Issues Faced With Competency Evaluations

The subjective nature of competency evaluations presents a lot of challenges when it comes to uncovering the results of the findings and interpreting them. Physicians/psychologists usually have difficulty in making such evaluations because they are often unsure of what is required from them. In the functional approach to competency evaluations, the level of competence is relative to the trial case in consideration, making them unsure of what they need to report.
However, the two key aspects that need to be addressed in the report are: 1) the current clinical representation of the defendant, and 2) a statement about the ability of the defendant to proceed with the trial. However, when making the statement, these professionals should keep the person’s case facts in mind. They should also preferably add their own opinion on whether the person should be allowed to go through the trail or not.
While competency evaluations can be difficult due to their subjective nature, they are often carried out before most trials.