What happens when an accused’s mental health is so poor that they cannot instruct their lawyer or participate meaningfully in their trial? This article will discuss what it means to be “fit to stand trial”.

The starting assumption in law is that an accused has the ability to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings (or is “fit” to stand trial) – unless the contrary can be proven on a more-likely-than-not basis.

If the accused, due to mental disorder, is unable to (1) understand the nature or object of the proceedings, (2) understand the possible consequences of the proceedings, or (3) communicate with counsel, the accused will be found unfit to stand trial. At that point, the trial would be suspended until such time that they are fit to proceed.

The test for determining the accused’s ability to communicate with counsel is one of “limited cognitive capacity”. In other words, the presence of an “operating mind” will disprove the idea that the accused is unable to communicate with, or instruct, counsel.

Perhaps the most significant case dealing with this issue was R v Whittle, [1994] 2 SCR 914 the accused was arrested for unpaid fines. At the station, the accused advised the police that he was responsible for a murder and three robberies. The trial court accepted the defence psychiatrist’s testimony that the accused was aware of what he was saying and what was being said to him, aware of the court process, and fit to instruct counsel. However, because of the voices in his head, he did not care about the consequences of providing his statements. Thus, the trial court found that because he could not appreciate the consequences that flowed from his statements, and because police officers should have waited to question the accused until such a time that he was aware of the consequences and able to properly communicate with counsel, he should be acquitted.

The Crown appealed this decision, to the Ontario Court of Appeal. They did not agree with the trial judge, and held that a new trial should be ordered instead. The court held that exercising the right to counsel requires that the accused have an operating mind, which is required for fitness to stand trial. The presence of an operating mind does not require that the accused possess the ability to make rational decisions in their own best interest, but that they are able to communicate the necessary information to counsel to present a defence. The Court of Appeal found that based on the evidence that the trial judge accepted, the accused’s mental condition satisfied the operating mind test. The Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the Ontario Court of Appeal.

An accused has the right to be meaningfully present at trial, to have the ability to communicate meaningfully with counsel, to understand the role of counsel and to forego the advice of counsel even if it is against their best interests. If you feel that you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health while navigating the criminal justice system, contact us at DeMelo Law so that we can assist.