Friday, November 6, 2009

Mental health court takes first cases

An article published in today's edition of The Chronicle Herald:
'It’s not about the crime, it’s about the person'

By Davene Jeffrey

The first sitting of the province’s mental health court wrapped up quickly Thursday afternoon in Halifax.

With just five cases on the docket, the session was over in just 15 minutes. And unlike in other courts, most of the participants seemed happy to be there.

"The docket will grow," said legal aid defence lawyer Kelly Rowlett. "There are a lot of mentally ill people who have filtered through the criminal court and forensic system."

Ms. Rowlett is one of two lawyers who will defend people who appear in the mental health court.

In the inaugural session Thursday, three men and two women facing charges ranging from assault with a weapon to mischief appeared in the court. Four of the five were eager to have the mental health court handle their cases.

One woman said she wanted time to review information on the program before deciding.

A team including a nurse and social worker will now interview the four and determine whether they are eligible for the program.

The atmosphere in the mental health court is meant to be collaborative rather than adversarial, said Crown attorney Sandi MacKinnon. The clients must acknowledge their guilt and sign a form stating they are entering the program voluntarily.

"It’s not about the crime, it’s about the person," Ms. Rowlett said.

And while the court is designed to be a better fit for people with mental health issues, it is also a good situation for Ms. Rowlett and Ms. MacKinnon, they said.

"In a previous life, I worked with individuals with disabilities and I was a community advocate," Ms. MacKinnon said.

That’s what led her to become a lawyer.

"It’s almost like coming full circle for me," she said.

Ms. Rowlett used to work in insurance litigation before she began to represent mentally ill clients.

"It’s kind of nice to make a difference every once in a while," she said.

Ms. Rowlett said her clients "are really wonderful, caring people who appreciate the assistance."

The mental health court has been in the works for two years.

Ms. MacKinnon said a lot of mental health services are available, but the job of the court and its team of workers will be to co-ordinate those services in developing programs for the people who come through the courtroom doors.

After a program has been set up for a client, he or she will be required to return to court so the judge can assess whether progress is being made.

In many cases, the criminal charges will eventually be stayed, Ms. MacKinnon said.

She said cases involving people who are found to be not criminally responsible for their actions will remain in the regular court system.

Ms. MacKinnon said the purpose of the mental health court is not to avoid criminal convictions for clients but to provide the supports they need to avoid coming into conflict with the law repeatedly. In that way, the public is protected, she said.

The Crown does anticipate some glitches as the new court gets underway.

For instance, Ms. MacKinnon said, few resources are available to help people who have experienced brain injuries.

"This segment of the population is going to be somewhat challenging," she said.

The court’s second session will be next Thursday.

Also see:

Youth Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

London's Mental Health Court

Reading List: Mental Health Diversion Courts

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