Lawyer Michelle Stanford (left) and Thompson Rivers University law professor Ruby Dhand outside the Kamloops Law Courts. The pair is among a group working toward establishing a mental-health court locally. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week)

Lawyer Michelle Stanford (left) and Thompson Rivers University law professor Ruby Dhand outside the Kamloops Law Courts. The pair is among a group working toward establishing a mental-health court locally. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week)

B.C. lawyer, professor look to piloting a mental-health court

In November, Nova Scotia’s mental-health court program marked 10 years of existence

  • Feb. 20, 2020 3:30 p.m.

–– Kamloops This Week

A defence lawyer and a Thompson Rivers University law professor are hoping their idea for a mental-health court in Kamloops could eventually effect change not just in the city, but across B.C.

“Oftentimes, we see people with mental-health issues and addictions, they don’t have that support, they don’t have those resources,” Ruby Dhand, a TRU law professor and one of the driving forces behind the idea, told KTW.

“There’s been so much stigma and it’s led to the criminalization of mental-health issues. I think there are a number of reasons we have to ensure there are more specialized courts like this and, specifically, more mental-health courts.”

Dhand has been working with Michelle Stanford, a city defence lawyer, in putting together a plan they hope will lead to a new court in Kamloops for accused people with mental-health and addictions issues.

“We see a lot of mental-health clients being incarcerated at Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre and it being a revolving door,” Stanford said. “We thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

According to Stanford, many mental-health accused are stuck in the system.

“They’re getting charged, pleading guilty, maybe getting assessed and ending up with time served and being released,” she said.

JURORS AS CONSCRIPTS: Four things to know if you’re called upon

“Then they’re released with no treatment and it starts over again. Maybe they get more and more time in jail, but there is no treatment. We’re hoping we could take a holistic approach.”

In mental-health court, Dhand said, those accused would receive treatment as part of their sentence.

“The intent is to divert people with mental-health issues away from the criminal-justice system,” she said. “We want to push them towards a plan to ensure they are connected to various supports in the community.”

Dhand said the plan is to have a dedicated court to deal with such accused, perhaps sitting once a week with the same judge and the same prosecutors.

“To have that consistency is really important,” she said. “And the goal is to have some training offered for people in this area.”

The offences dealt with in the court would be minor ones — break-ins, breaches, thefts and the like.

“People need to accept responsibility,” Dhand said. “And the program will only work if it’s voluntary.”

According to Dhand, there are more than 20 mental-health courts operating in Canada, but none in B.C. She said the appetite is there from those involved in the criminal justice system and other associated groups.

“All the agencies we’ve been able to talk to have been excited about this,” she said, noting judges, lawyers and social workers also see a benefit. “They really see this as fundamental to increase access to justice and ensuring fairness.”

Stanford said organizers held a meeting last fall and the plan is to pitch the idea to the Provincial Court of B.C.’s judicial council later this year.

“We have a sense of what the problems are in dealing with recidivists,” she said. “That’s something we’ve considered.”

According to Dhand, the ultimate goal is to have the court in place on a pilot basis in the next 12 months.

“We hope to come out with kind of a blue print,” she said. “This could be a pilot project here and also have it for research — even the practical nature of it. In the future, we could use this as a model for B.C.”

The experience elsewhere

In November, Nova Scotia’s mental-health court program marked 10 years of existence, with its legal approach focused on collaboration rather than conflict.

The court is located in numerous communities and has seen its name changed — from Nova Scotia Mental Health Court to the less stigmatizing Dartmouth Wellness Court.

A preliminary assessment study released in November stated a key ingredient for the success of program participants is “being ready for personal change.”

That was echoed by Tomi Abriel, who completed the program in 2017. Abriel said he was “petrified” when he was first referred to the mental health court.

“In my mind I was walking up the gallows,” he said. “My experience has been the complete opposite. I realized I was on a journey of recovery and had a team of professionals behind me who were really championing my success as long as I was willing to do the hard work that was required.”

Abriel said he was also inspired by seeing others do well in a program he describes as a “dynamic experience.” He credited the support he received from the court and the therapies accessed in the community as a result, with turning his life around.

“I do believe that I have the tools that I need to go on and deal with life on life’s terms as it comes to me,” he said.

Mental health courts first appeared in Canada in the late 1990s to deal with people with mental disorders who come into conflict with the law as a result of their mental challenges.

Unlike the adversarial approach taken in the regular court system, the mental health court focuses on collaboration and problem solving.

“It is now widely acknowledged that the traditional justice system is not well-equipped to address the complex needs of individuals living with mental illness and substance use,” the Nova Scotia study says. “It took years to accept this and develop a new approach.”

In Nova Scotia, the court programs administer a support plan tailored to the needs of each person. They are held accountable for their crimes and are assessed for their potential risk to public safety.

Since its inception, the Dartmouth court has expanded to include an opioid court program, an alcohol court program and a judicial monitoring program, which primarily serves marginalized and vulnerable people who live with undiagnosed trauma.

A report released on the Dartmouth court’s fifth anniversary in 2014 said that of the 232 adults deemed eligible to use the court between 2009 and 2013, 86 per cent had successfully completed its voluntary diversion program.

– with files from The Canadian Press

Tim Petruk, Kamloops This Week

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Courtmental health

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

This cougar alert was posted in a wooded area of River’s Edge on Anglers Boulevard on Aug. 10, 2021. (Rob Lachlan)
Cougar sighting in Chilliwack prompts warning notices in residential area

Cougar was spotted on Vedder Rotary Trail and near River’s Edge

Mike McKinlay and Isabelle Groc won an award in 2018 for their documentary ‘Toad People’ at the Wildscreen Panda Awards. The Fraser Valley Regional Library will be showing the film during its virtual Doc ‘n Talk event on April 15, 2021. (Jakob Dulisse)
From toad documentary to ukulele jams, Fraser Valley libraries offer various virtual events

A list of upcoming online events hosted by Fraser Valley Regional Library in April

People stroll through rows of tulips in bloom during the Tulips of the Valley Festival on May 2, 2017. The colourful spring event, now called Chilliwack Tulips, opens on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Chilliwack tulip attraction open this weekend after being closed last year due to COVID-19

More than 6.5 million bulbs in all at this year’s colourful Chilliwack Tulips event

Oregon spotted frog egg masses near Agassiz. (Fraser Valley Conservancy)
Jumping for joy over Oregon spotted frog discovery near Agassiz

Finding six egg masses could be step toward recovery of Canada’s most endangered amphibian

Sunset Manor, an assisted living facility in Chilliwack owned by the Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Chilliwack, pictured here in October 2020, had its third COVID-19 outbreak declared on April 9, 2021. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Third outbreak declared at Chilliwack care home run by church known for opposing vaccinations

30-bed Sunset Manor owned and operated by Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Chilliwack

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The 10-part Netflix series Maid, which is being exclusively shot in Greater Victoria, was filming near Prospect Lake in Saanich last month. (Photo courtesy Fred Haynes)
Province announces $150,000 towards film studio, fulfilling B.C. NDP promise

Investment to fund movie studio feasibility study at Camosun College

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
UVic, women’s rowing coach deny former athlete’s allegation of verbal abuse

Lily Copeland alleges coach Barney Williams would stand close to her and speak aggressively in the sauna

Most Read