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The Five Objectives of Competency - #4: Conclusory Opinions about Legal Competency and Incompetency

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:52pm

This objective is where the evaluator offers an opinion regarding the defendant’s competency (or lack thereof) to stand trial. This is the ultimate question in terms of an evaluation of competence, and Federal law allows (though it does not require) a mental health professional to offer an opinion regarding the question of competence. Due to the lack of a requirement to offer an opinion, this objective is an optional one. Moreover, the opinion of the evaluator has no legal weight - it is the Court that ultimately decides the defendant’s competence. What is interesting, though, is the debate in the field of forensic psychology regarding whether evaluators should offer an opinion. Here’s why many practitioners believe evaluators should not:

1) A legal decision requires an understanding of the justice system - the idea here is that mental health professionals are trained in mental health, not law. Our training does not provide us with the expertise necessary to make a legal judgment, including in the context of what constitutes “fair” or “just.” Many mental health professionals argue that evaluators are exceeding their professional bounds by offering opinions on legal matters.

2) The Court’s lack of understanding re: the mental health profession - this concern has to do with the belief that many legal professionals do not understand the limits of the mental health profession, as listed above. Therefore, some professionals are concerned that judges and juries will be overly influenced by what an examiner has to say in terms of an opinion, giving it undue weight, and ceding their responsibility as the ultimate decider.

3) Rendering an opinion offers no new information - an evaluator’s “opinion” ought to be clear from the content of the evaluator’s report, especially if the evaluator has addressed the other relevant objectives. Providing a statement of opinion provides no additional information, and therefore the Court loses nothing if the evaluator does not offer their opinion.

Other professionals argue that these arguments are not strong enough to mandate silence with respect to an opinion (thus, the debate!). Their main point is that offering the opinion doesn’t really do any harm, and judges generally understand that the ball is ultimately in their court (pun not intended, but actually not bad!). I’ve talked with a number of forensic evaluators on this subject, and they’ve generally agreed to disagree. A majority, however, do not see this issue as a big deal, re: competency, and will offer an opinion, especially if asked. My own opinion is that with respect to competency, an opinion is not as big a deal, because the stakes are not as high, when compared to the sanity defense (where the evaluator NEVER offers their opinion!). Again, the judge can disagree, and if the case is complex, there may well be another evaluator providing their opinion as well, allowing the judge to weight each argument. Ultimately, every evaluator needs to decide for themselves at this point whether to offer an actual opinion. I’m actually surprised this hasn’t been addressed more forcefully one way or the other, but it hasn’t. The important thing, regardless of whether you come right out and say it or not, is that a thorough evaluation is completed, so that all relevant issues are addressed as well as possible. Then, whether the evaluator provides an opinion or not, the judge has the best information possible at his/her disposal to make an informed decision.

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