The Meaning of Trial Fitness
When a person is deemed "unfit to stand trial," it indicates that they are incapable, due to a mental disorder, of defending themselves against the charges they are facing or effectively communicating with their lawyer regarding their case.
More specifically, being "unfit to stand trial" means:
1. The accused person lacks the ability to comprehend that they are present in a courtroom and identify the individuals present, such as the judge, the Crown prosecutor, and their own lawyer, as well as the purpose of their presence.
2. The accused person lacks the ability to understand the nature of the charges against them, the available pleas (such as guilty or not guilty), the potential consequences of pleading guilty, or the repercussions of providing false information in court.
3. The accused person is unable to communicate with their lawyer effectively, even on a basic level, regarding their preferences and decisions concerning their case.
The judge will typically order a fitness assessment when they have reasonable grounds to believe that any or all of the above conditions are true. Every accused person is initially considered "fit" to stand trial unless a judge determines that the accused is "unfit to stand trial" following a fitness hearing.
When Will a Judge Typically Make a Fitness Assessment Order?
Fitness assessment orders can be issued by judges at any stage of legal proceedings but are often requested shortly after the accused’s appearance in bail court.
Who can Request a Fitness Assessment Order?
- The accused,
- the Accused’s lawyer,
- and the judge presiding over the case.
It’s common for the accused’s lawyer and the Crown prosecutor to jointly seek the order.
What is a Fitness to Stand Trial Assessment?
This type of assessment represents a scenario where a judge seeks to determine whether an accused individual is "unfit to stand trial."
When an accused person undergoes this assessment, the regular criminal process is put on hold and the accused is sent to a secure psychiatric hospital until the judge reaches a decision regarding their fitness to stand trial.
The fitness to stand trial assessment can be viewed as the second stage of a three-stage procedure:
Stage one: Judge Deliberates on Whether to Order a Psychiatric Assessment for the Accused
During this stage, the judge's focus is solely on determining whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the accused is unfit to stand trial.
The judge listens to the arguments presented by the Crown prosecutor, the accused's lawyer (or duty counsel), and often the accused themselves to make this determination. Questions may be directed to the accused in court by their lawyer or the judge. If, based on the information provided, the judge believes that the accused is unfit to stand trial, they will issue an order for a psychiatrist to evaluate the accused's current mental state.
Stage two: Assessment of the Accused’s Mental Condition is Conducted by a Psychiatrist
This assessment typically takes place in a secure psychiatric facility, although it may occasionally occur within the courthouse.
The psychiatrist evaluates the accused through interviews, sometimes conducted on multiple occasions depending on the duration of the assessment order. Subsequently, the psychiatrist prepares a report expressing their professional opinion on whether the accused is fit or unfit to stand trial.
Stage three: Fitness Hearing
A "fitness hearing" is a brief trial in court where witnesses and evidence may be presented. During the hearing, the judge will factor in the psychiatrist's opinion as well as arguments presented by the Crown prosecutor and the accused’s lawyer to render a decision on whether the accused is deemed "unfit to stand trial" or not.