Collaboration key to LAA’s role in Mental Health Court

Just over eight months since the program started, Edmonton’s Mental Health Court has proven early success, and is in no small part due to the collaboration of Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) lawyers and Justice Navigators in and out of the courtroom.

The Edmonton Mental Health Court is designed to address matters where there is reason to believe that a person’s criminal charges are due at least in part to mental health.  The Court is one of Alberta’s special courts that is based on a therapeutic model, involving a more collaborative and restorative approach than one sees in the more conventional criminal court structure.

In early 2018 our services expanded to include providing dedicated support in Edmonton’s new Mental Health Court. Partly based on a model used in other Canadian jurisdictions, mental health court is a collaborative approach which incorporates health care professionals to provide information and assistance to the Participant, Counsel and the Court involving Albertans who may be facing mental health challenges and illnesses. There is an ability to access information in a more timely fashion during court as required. A psychiatrist and mental health Nurse are also available. Sometimes a Psychiatrist may be required to also speak to an accused briefly, if there are “fitness” concerns about the accused’s ability to understand the nature of the proceedings. 

Legal Aid Alberta currently dedicates three in-house Duty Counsel lawyers, and three Justice Navigators who also work for Legal Aid Alberta. Court sits three days a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), and there is always a Duty Counsel Lawyer and Justice Navigator assigned to each court sitting. Andrew Holko, who is one of the Legal Aid Alberta staff dedicated to the project, said the effort on the part of LAA staff provides meaningful and real assistance to people who are lacking the resources and capacity to come up with Release or Bail Plans, while addressing issues related to support and follow-ups after they are sentenced or put on probation.

“This is a Court where we can work collaboratively with the resources available,” said Holko. “We take time to come up with meaningful solutions which will benefit not only the accused, but society, by significantly lessening the frequency that a person suffering from a mental illness will be involved in the criminal justice system.”  

The pilot project directly ties to the Legal Aid Alberta mission and culture. We have dedicated duty counsel and support staff resources to ensure those needing representation have equitable access to legal counsel and support. Legal Aid Alberta lawyers and staff work with the prosecutor and other mental health care professions to provide meaningful assistance to clients, including follow-up support once sentencing is complete.

“Navigators and Duty Counsel are working well and complimenting each other in the duties performed,” said Holko. “I believe this collaborative approach is evident to the court and others who have observed us at work. For example, we have heard positive comments on the fluidity of the interviews we have with our clients, establishing a trusting relationship while focusing on the task of  obtaining pertinent information to assist our clients and the Mental Health Court process.”

Access to justice is put into practice on a daily basis, said Holko. Lawyers, Justice Navigators, and staff involved in Mental Health Court include members from family, youth and criminal practice law areas. LAA’s Client Services area is also involved in reaching out and contacting participants identified by Duty Counsel, who are having difficulty applying for LAA coverage due to their circumstances at Remand or Mental Health. 

Mental Health Court is not a cookie cutter approach, as the process continues to evolve as stakeholders including judges, prosecutors, court staff, remand centre staff, and Alberta Health Services team members learn from their case experiences. This collaborative approach lays the foundation to discuss improvements and arrive at decisions that are fair and effective for those before the court.

What is unique about this program is the judge has the help of a group of legal and health professionals to guide the decision. The focus is on addressing the problems that cause the behaviour, in order to reduce recidivism.

Ensuring those who have entered into the justice system, and are at times more vulnerable than others due to multiple and sometimes interrelated factors, have a fair and equitable opportunity is an important part of Legal Aid Alberta’s approach. Our organization is growing into a Centre of Excellence in Alberta’s legal system that is uniquely able to provide key supports and expertise in many areas that enable the system to function much more effectively than would otherwise be the case.

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