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Competence is a legal or forensic term used to describe mental/psychological/intellectual fitness of an individual, particularly as it relates to legal proceedings. The threshold to be deemed competent varies based on the nature of the judicial proceedings:

  • Competency to serve as a witness
  • Competency to stand trial exists when an individual has basic understanding of court proceedings and can participate in his/her defense.
  • Competency to be executed is another example.

If a defendant is found to be incompetent, the case against him/her may be dismissed (indefinitely or until competence can be re-established). A witness lacking competence cannot testify.

Competency evaluation usually done by a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist.

Competence to serve as a witness

Four criteria determine child's competence to function as a witness:

  • Ability to register an event
  • Ability to recall and accurately recount an event
  • Ability to distinguish truth from falsehood
  • Ability to make the report based on personal knowledge of the facts

Juvenile Competency to Stand Trial

An adolescent may be determined to lack competency to stand trial, if a forensic evaluation shows that
1) the youth has an impairment in competency (i.e. inability to understand basic court proceedings, participate in own defense)
2) impairment in competence is caused by one or more of the following:

  • mental illness
  • intellectual disability
  • developmental immaturity.

A finding of youth's incompetence to stand trial usually leads to the legal proceedings being suspended. Efforts can be made to help the youth attain competence (psychiatric treatment, education about legal system). In some cases, particularly if the crime is a minor one, the case may be dismissed.


Dulcan M. Dulcan’s Textbook of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2010

Bath, E. Gerring, J. National Trends in Juvenile Competency to Stand Trial. JAACAP 53:3, 2014