Competence (law)

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In law, competence concerns the mental capacity of an individual to participate in legal proceedings. Defendants that do not possess sufficient "competence" are usually excluded from criminal prosecution, while witnesses found not to possess requisite competence cannot testify.

United States

In United States law, this protection has been ruled by the United States Supreme Court to be guaranteed under the due process clause. If the court determines that a defendant's mental condition makes him unable to understand the proceedings, or that he is unable to help in his defense, he is likely to be found incompetent. The specific test, as determined in Dusky v. United States, is whether the accused "has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding—and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." Being determined incompetent is substantially different from undertaking an insanity defense; competence regards the defendant's state of mind at the time of the trial, while insanity regards his state of mind at the time of the crime. It has also been referred to as a "7:30 exam".

In some cases, the word incompetent is used to describe persons who lack mental capacity to make contracts, handle their financial and other personal matters such as consenting to medical treatment, etc. and often need a legal guardian to handle their affairs.

Competence to be executed

An inmate on death row has a right to be evaluated for competency to be executed by a psychologist rather than the governor. This is a result of Ford v. Wainwright, a case filed by a Florida inmate on death row who took his case to the United States Supreme Court, declaring he was not competent to be executed. The court ruled in his favor, stating that a forensic professional must make that competency evaluation and, if the inmate is found incompetent, must provide treatment to aid in his gaining competency so the execution can take place.[1]

Competence and Native Americans

Competency was used to determine whether individual Indians could use land that was allotted to them from the General Allotment Act (GAA) also known as the Dawes Act. The practice was used after in 1906 with the passing of the Burk Act, also known as the forced patenting act. This Act further amended the GAA to give the Secretary of the Interior the power to issue allotees a patent in fee simple to people classified ‘competent and capable.’ The criteria for this determination is unclear but meant that allotees deemed ‘competent’ by the Secretary of the Interior would have their land taken out of trust status, subject to taxation, and could be sold by the allottee.

The Act of June 25th 1910 further amends the GAA to give the Secretary of the Interior the power to sell the land of deceased allotees or issue patent and fee to legal heirs. This decision is based on a determination made by the Secretary of Interior whether the legal heirs are ‘competent’ or ‘incompetent’ to manage their own affairs.

England and Wales

In English law, fitness to plead is the equivalent. There is no reason to punish a criminal if one did not know what one did wrong in the first place. When defendants are not able to participate in the legal system, the legal system should not apply to them. There are several different levels of competence. One level is known as adjudicative competence. This level basically means that defendants are obviously competent enough to plead guilty for a crime that they committed and do voluntarily. Competence also has many loopholes in which defendants can claim not having competence at the time of the occurrence. One example of this would be momentary amnesia. Momentery amnesia does not happen very often and is rarely ever used in court, let alone even believed. Medication is also a competence issue as well. There are issues raised about how people need medication to stay competent. Many people try and use that defense in court saying, "I am competent with medication, but when I committed the act of crime I was off my medication;" that defense rarely works as well. Basically, competence, dealing with law, has many factors which are involved with it, as well as several different loopholes that desperate defendants try and use in court and miserably fail.

See also


  1. "Ford v. Wainwright 477 U.S. 399". Cornell Law School. Retrieved 2007-10-03.