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EDITORIAL: Time for better mental health court services

The time has come for the province to address the issues around mental health and the court system.

And, a Feb. 6 provincial court matter provides a stark reminder.

On that day, a P.E.I. judge had to resort to subpoenaing two health officials because the Hillsborough Hospital refused to provide records for woman with serious mental health issues at sentencing.

It’s hard to think of another example of health officials being subpoenaed in a similar case.

Rather than proceeding, the matter was adjourned.

It was concluded more than a week later with the accused being sentenced to probation for assault.

Another familiar occurrence involves the long line of people waiting for mental health assessments, and judges having to grant extensions, or new orders altogether, because the assessments aren’t being completed in time.

Of course, hiring more mental health professionals would help, but that is already on the province’s radar.

The importance of these assessments is to determine whether someone is fit to participate in their own defence as well as determine their degree of responsibility.

These instances of unnecessary delays and adjournments are a result of the court’s inability to properly deal with mental health issues.

It isn’t the court’s fault. Judges are doing the best they can.

But it’s time to implement an idea that has been tossed around for several years, namely creating a mental health or therapeutic court.

This would allow mental health matters to be diverted out of general docket court and given the specialized attention they deserve.

Other jurisdictions have implemented some form of mental health or wellness court, including Ontario, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, Manitoba, Alberta and Nova Scotia.

In 2016, the University of Regina reviewed one of two such court options in Saskatchewan – the Regina Mental Health Disposition court.

The report found that the court had a positive outcome of diverting offenders with mental health or cognitive issues away from jail in favour of a successful treatment plan.

The court brings together judges, lawyers, forensic psychiatrists and social workers. Over a two-year period, the most common offences involved failing to comply with release conditions, failing to attend court and breaching probation as well as assaults, uttering treats and mischief.

Most of the outcomes involved community-based sentences, time served or charges stayed or withdrawn. A handful involved short periods of incarceration.

It takes pressure off the justice system and docket court. But more than that, it provides a more timely resolution with court matters and treats offenders with more dignity.

As it stands now, cases involving mental health issues are bogged down with adjournments as an offender sits in her room at Hillsborough Hospital waiting for an outcome.

Why P.E.I. hasn’t found a better options and followed suit by implementing a therapeutic or mental health court option is a mystery.

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