The basic issue in a competency exam is the present ability of a defendant to function adequately with whatever legal process is in front of the defendant. There are two general issues: Does the defendant know why s/he is going to court? Can the defendant adequately protect himself or herself in court? The following questions are typically asked in one fashion or another.
1. As the result of a present mental disorder, is this defendant presently unable to understand the nature and purpose of the proceeding taken against him/her?
2. As the result of a present mental disorder, is this defendant presently unable to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner?
3. As the result of a present mental disorder, is this defendant presently unable to prepare and conduct his/her own defense in a rational manner without counsel?
The examiner must know the jurisdiction and the specific questions generated by that jurisdiction.
The competency examination is undertaken in order to offer the court an opinion as to the defendant’s present capacity and mental status. This examination has nothing to do with mental status at the time of the alleged crime. It is also usually a very narrow exam. That is, the court is only interested in the defendant’s ability to function within the court case. The issue about what the defendant can or cannot do in other realms of life is generally irrelevant. So, for example, the defendant may be extremely paranoid about visitors from Mars coming to rob the refrigerator. However, if the paranoia does not influence his or her functioning in the present case, the defendant could be found competent.
The actual examination for competency can vary greatly between examiners. Record review is necessary, if only to be able to determine if the defendant understands the charges and what circumstances allegedly occurred to bring the defendant before the court. Clearly the examiner must directly interview the defendant. Some examiners only do an interview while others interview and perform various psychological tests. Tests used will vary depending upon examiner preference, but tend to elicit information about cognitive functioning and about any potential thought disorder.