A criminal charge doesn’t translate to a conviction in criminal law. Allegations against an accused person must be beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution. But what happens if the defendant can’t stand trial due to mental illness?
We can’t deny the fact that individuals with mental illnesses also commit crimes. Such individuals are known as incompetent defendants in criminal law because they can’t stand trial or take a plea. According to the best criminal lawyer in Toronto, an incompetent defendant can’t be prosecuted.
Legal Meaning of “Unfit to Stand Trial”
The Criminal Code of Canada defines unfit to stand trial as “the accused person is unable, due to a mental disorder, to defend allegations (charges against them) or to give reasonable directions to their lawyers about their case. An accused person is considered unfit to stand trial if:
- The defendant can’t attend, follow, or understand court proceedings because of their mental state;
- The accused doesn’t understand the crime committed and the pleas they can enter (guilty or not guilty), the consequences of a guilty plea, or how they’re supposed to conduct themselves in court;
- The accused cannot seek legal services unless they’re helped by others.
The Criminal Code allows courts to assume that all accused persons are “fit” unless a fitness hearing conducted by a judge proves otherwise. If any of the above 3 points exist in a case, the court will order a fitness assessment. The steps that should be followed when the accused’s fitness to stand trial is questionable include:
1. Appearing in Court
A psychiatric assessment is usually recommended by either the police, the defendant’s attorney, or the court if the mental state of an accused person is questionable before they appear in court.
2. Psychiatric Assessment
A judge will issue an assessment order if they think that a mental assessment of the accused person is necessary. In other words, the accused should first undergo mental examination if their fitness to stand trial is questionable. The court may recommend a health facility where a mental examination should be done and demand a report of the same after the procedure is through.
3. Fitness Trial
The court uses the mental examination report to determine if the defendant can stand trial and the following possibilities are likely:
- The trial will proceed if the report indicates that the accused is fit to stand trial; or
- The court can recommend psychiatric treatment if the report indicates that the accused is unfit to stand trial.
A disposition refers to a court’s decision on a criminal charge. A court’s decision is based on a hearing to determine if the defendant is still unfit to stand trial after considering the following factors:
- Circumstances surrounding the crime;
- Criminal record of the accused;
- Psychiatric report or other information related to the case.
The defendant is ordered back to court to allow the court to examine whether they’re fit for trial. If the accused is still unfit, the court will determine the appropriate disposition order for the defendant. The disposition orders granted by courts include:
- Seeking treatment from a psychiatric institute; or
- A release on conditional discharge.
A conditional discharge comes with certain restrictions on the accused person and it’s recommended after considering certain factors, such as public safety, mental state of the accused, re-integration into society, and the needs of the defendant.
Other Defenses in Criminal Law
Pleading innocence is not as straightforward as it sounds and that’s why preparation is important to build a strong defense. But remember, the prosecution has the burden of proof and not the defendants– in criminal law. The defendant can only help their situation by providing sufficient evidence to defeat allegations made against them.
The defense can use pieces of evidence, such as witness testimonies or surveillance footage to establish an alibi or exonerate the accused person. Surveillance cameras particularly are useful when proving that the accused was not at the scene of the alleged crime. Evidence can also be used to prove that another person committed the alleged crime.
2. Constitutional Violations
Violating the constitutional right of the accused can be a powerful defense in criminal law. The following acts amount to constitutional violation according to Canada’s Constitution:
- Failing to read the rights of an accused person (defendant);
- Searching and seizing the defendant’s home and vehicle, respectively, without a search warrant;
- Performing illegal searches on an accused person’s property;
- Improper handling and storage of evidence;
- Obtaining confessions through coercion.
Failing to follow certain guidelines potentially makes evidence obtained during the investigation inadmissible in court and the accused can be acquitted. Alternatively, a constitutional violation can be used by the defense to bargain a plea deal.
Self-defense, also called justification, is common in murder and manslaughter crimes where the accused claims that the use of force was unavoidable because they (or others) were exposed to physical harm. This defense is typically applicable if physical force against an oppressor is necessary.
Mentally ill accused persons are considered unfit for trial – meaning they cannot be prosecuted. Seeking legal advice should be the first thing if a mentally ill loved one is facing criminal charges.
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