Mental health court is a gateway to a better life for Alberta’s marginalized community, says Legal Aid Alberta lawyer

For Mental Health Awareness Week, LAA lawyer Amna Qureshi talks about how Edmonton’s mental health court is changing lives.

October 08, 2020

Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Amna Qureshi has met countless Albertans who get in trouble with the law and suffer serious mental illness. Mental health court, she says, is their gateway to a better life, and it works.

“Mental health courts, like other specialty courts, have proven to be an effective way to assist our most marginalized community members by connecting them with the right resources and supports, recognizing the disadvantages they face, and creating solutions that provide meaningful acceptance of responsibility,” she says.

“This court is like no other.”

Qureshi recalls one client entered mental health court facing criminal charges at an incredibly low point of his life. Struggling to manage schizophrenia and severe addictions, and because of his past convictions, he almost certainly would have gone to jail.

“Mental health court gave him the support he needed to take ownership of his circumstances and turn his life around,” she says.

“He took responsibility for his offences, worked hard, and was able to avoid further incarceration. He has become known to the entire court because of the strides he has made. He still comes to check in and is currently writing a book about his life.”

Legal Aid Alberta lawyer Amna Qureshi.

At the frontlines in a pandemic

Helping Albertans is Qureshi’s greatest motivation. Every day she is humbled and inspired watching people overcome their struggles and emerge from the justice process better equipped to deal life’s challenges and less likely to commit other crimes.

“There have been countless stories of success since the start of the court – stories of people who have come into the court traumatized, distrustful of the system, struggling to manage their mental health – and who have left the court with more resources, little to no further allegations of re-offending, and with a more positive outlook for their future.”

Access to mental health services has become more essential than ever. Mental health court has stayed open in some capacity throughout the pandemic to ensure no one falls through the cracks. In the spring, Qureshi and the Legal Aid Alberta mental health court team would meet clients virtually and schedule regular check-ins.

“Now, we are operating almost normally again with our duty counsel and justice navigators back in the courtroom,” she says.

Exterior view of the Edmonton law courts.

Exterior view of the Edmonton law courts.

Fewer breaches and missed court appearances

Edmonton’s mental health court began in spring 2018 and is a specialized therapeutic or problem-solving court. While it is the first of its kind in Alberta, Edmonton’s mental health court is modeled after other longstanding mental health courts in other parts of the country.

The aim of the court is to recognize that in a lot of cases, people who are in conflict with the law also struggle with mental illness and other concurrent issues such as poverty, lack of housing, trauma, and addictions.

“This court is like no other as it is a safe place for those who struggle with mental health issues. People are treated with great dignity in an effort to understand their challenges in conditions that don’t set them up for failure.”

The court hears information and expertise from social workers, psychiatrists and nurses, as well as designated judges, crown prosecutors, and duty counsel and justice navigators from Legal Aid Alberta. There are no trials.

Adults charged with a criminal offence who have some indication of mental health issues can request that their matters be heard in mental health court. At this time, only Albertans who have Edmonton charges are eligible to be referred into the court.