The meaning of legal capacity

Rohn K. Robbins
Rohn Robbins

Capax. Wasn’t that a movie starring Kevin Spacey? Okay, maybe that was K-Pax. The pronunciation, if not the meaning, though, are nonetheless the same. K-Pax, the movie, is about a man who claims to have arrived on earth from a distant planet. He is, needless to say, a patient in a mental hospital and is plotting his return to planet K-Pax with the other patients on the ward. Beneath the Hollywood veneer, the movie deals with questions of science versus faith and the tension between reality and delusion. Interestingly, the guy who plays the alien-cum-mental patient’s psychiatrist is Jeff Bridges. Could Hollywood have intended by this casting to suggest a “bridge” between these disparate states? I scratch my head in wonder sometimes.So, you say, to coin a Tina Turner paraphrase, “what’s law got to do, got to do with it?”Well, the title, K-Pax, I suspect, was not bestowed upon the movie by the Gods of Make-Believe by mere happenstance. Nothing, save the odd earthquake here and there, in Hollywood is ever unintended. But why K-Pax, then? Well, back to homonyms a second. You’ll recall that K-Pax sounds the same as capax. Same sound, different words. K-Pax in the movie is a planet a 1000 light years removed from earth off into the dark netherworld of space. But the real subject of the movie is the thin blade dividing verity from apparition. It is a movie dealing with the inner landscape of the mind, the parcing (and, perhaps, “bridging”) of the human intellect into overlapping hemispheres of sentience and hallucination. In the end, the movie is about the dark and twisted corridors of the human mind rather than the starry atmosphere of space (though, admittedly, the “star” of the movie being “Spacey’ is an odd quirk, indeed). Here, then, is where “capax” and the law come in.The word “capax” derives from the Latin word “capere” which means to take, hold, or contain. And from the word capax, in turn, derives the English word “capacity” which is variously defined to mean the power of receiving or containing, including the extent of comprehensiveness of the mind. “Capacity” encompasses the power of receiving ideas or knowledge and the extent of one’s mental abilities. It also circumscribes mental ability in a moral and/or legal sense.Okay, I’ve got you out there now thrumming the hummingbird-like wings of your own mental capacity in confusion over my attenuated esoterica. Sorry about that. I get like that sometimes. Let me try and make things clear.In a legal sense, “capacity” has to do with mental state. It means legal qualification, competency, power or fitness. It includes the ability to understand the nature and effects of one’s acts. Accordingly, one must possess a certain requisite mental capacity in order to be held responsible for one’s conduct. One who is under the oppression of a mental defect, for example, lacks the legal capacity to enter into a binding contract or agreement. The term mental capacity, then, contemplates the ability to understand the nature and effect of the act in which the person is engaged and the business he or she is transacting. Where one lacks such capacity, because of mental defect or disease, he or she will not be bound under the law. Simply, if one cannot, and does not, know what he or she is doing, and is incapable of understanding the consequences of his or her own conduct, the law will not enforce the repercussions of those acts upon him.Legal incapacity can, and does, extend beyond strict definitions of mental illness and/or defect. The concept of “legal age” is but one example. “Legal age” is the age at which the person acquires full capacity to make his or her own contracts and deeds and to transact business generally. Before that age (that is, the age of majority), the person lacks capacity (that is, the requisite mental ability) to be bound by his or her decisions. By law, a minor is legally incapable of acting for him or herself. By legal definition, then, a minor labors under the incapacity of youth and inexperience to the degree that he or she may not be held accountable for youthful indiscretion or impulsiveness and, accordingly, cannot (except in unusual circumstances) be bound by those decisions.A similar concept is that of a “person under disability” which is defined as any person who is impaired by reason of mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, old age, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication or other cause (except minority), to the extent that he or she lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate responsible decisions concerning his or her person.Capacity rears its head in criminal proceedings as well, often under the rubric of “substantial capacity,” the term used in the definition of legal insanity to the effect that the person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, he or she lacked substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality or wrongfulness of his or her conduct, or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of law. “Capax doli” is the capability of harboring criminal intent. “Capax negotii,” is the civil equivalent, that is the mental competence to transact affairs, of having business capacity.K-Pax, the movie, is about Prot, the alien/mental patient’s, mind. It is about his reality, about his mental state, about capacity. Capax, in legal terms, is essentially the same, absent movie stars, Glittertown tinsel and the hoary blanket of the star-encrusted universe. Both concern the inner passageways of cognition, thought and, ultimately, personal responsibility. A homonym, a metaphor, an allegory? Perhaps. Choose whichever suits you best.Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. Hear Robbins at 7 p.m. Wednesday’s on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Reach Robbins at 926-4461 or, Colorado

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