Adjudicative Competence in Legal Theory and Practice
At least since the 14th century, common-law courts have declined to proceed against criminal defendants who are “incompetent” to be brought before the court for adjudication. As was true of so much of the common law, the “incompetency plea,” as it developed, was rooted in an ancient legal formalism. A criminal prosecution could not proceed against someone who had not entered a plea (guilty or not guilty). A defendant who “stood mute” might be doing so willfully (“mute of malice”) or due to deafness or madness (“mute by visitation of God”). Confinement in a small cell, starvation, or the pressure of heavy weights was used to induce a plea from strategically silent defendants, thereby allowing the process to move forward. However, the Crown could not proceed against a “lunatic” or “idiot” whose understanding of the proceedings was so diminished as to prevent a knowing plea. Even after the courts became willing to enter “not guilty” pleas on behalf of defendants who stood mute, the “incompetency plea” survived as an independent bar to adjudication.
KeywordsLegal Theory Criminal Process Criminal Prosecution Competence Assessment Appellate Court
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