Ask a Lawyer: Mental Health Court and the collaborative approach to justice

Mental Health Court is a specialized court that helps Albertans dealing with criminal charges and mental illness get the support they need.

Legal Aid AB
May 02, 2023

May 1-7 is Mental Health Week across Canada. It’s a time to raise awareness, spark dialogue and reduce the stigma behind mental health in communities. Part of that conversation also includes Mental Health Court, a unique court system in Alberta that offers support for individuals struggling with mental health issues and facing criminal charges.

Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Andrew Holko joined the conversation on Global News Morning Edmonton’s Ask a Lawyer to talk about the court’s role in the community, LAA’s involvement in the process and how participants in the system can get the help they need.

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Related news: Seven facts about Mental Health Court and how it’s changing lives

Transcript of the program:

Vinesh Pratap: Well this week is Mental Health Awareness in week in Canada, and here with us today to talk about a unique court which helps people that are struggling with mental health issues and criminal charges is Legal Aid Alberta lawyer Andrew Holko.

Andrew Holko: Thanks very much, thanks for having me.

Vinesh: As we were chatting during the break on Mental Health Court, this has been around for several years, just give us a little bit of history behind it and its role in the community and the legal system.

Andrew: So Mental Health Court has been around, I believe, if memory serves me it’s been around for about five years, it was a court designed to address those situations where people with charges find themselves in front of our judicial system and they are suffering from legitimate mental illness or a lot of times, long-standing mental illness so it’s a court that has resources in place to address that system.

Vinesh: So if we talk more as a society in general about mental health and learning more about it, what has the court learned and how has the court evolved the last several years in addressing people’s needs while addressing the issues of the legal criminal issues at play? 

Andrew: So Mental Health Court to be specific is a court designed to address situations mostly where judicial interim release or bail has to be addressed. We have people in custody or also people that are not in custody, and we are there to see if we can resolve these matters either by assistance through Alberta Health Services, through the experiences we have in mental health court. It’s not a trial court room, so it’s a specialized docket court and that’s important to remember.

Vinesh: OK, so take us through – as a person starts, as they kind of go through [the system] what kind of outcomes are we seeing and have we seen, and is it what you expected five years ago?

Andrew: So when we started five years ago, we were very excited because this was a new endeavour. It was a special court where we had dedicated judges, meaning the judges that were usually ones that wanted to be my courtroom, were experienced with mental health issues, and we had dedicated duty counsel lawyers, as well supplied by legal aid. We have a justice navigator which [who] also works for a legal aid, sort of a social worker in a sense that it tries to connect people with some of the resources and supports that may have been lacking and maybe in some way, have contributed to people reoffending and not getting the help they need which would decrease the chances of further charges.

We also have a psychiatrist that’s available for consultation in Mental Health Court. It’s not a clinic, but in conjunction with Alberta Health Services we are able to access a person’s information with their permission of course. We use this information to provide a more holistic approach to ultimately resolve the matters. I think it’s important to remember that mental health court is primarily a court where most people that come in here, come in voluntarily. So some the checks and balances we might have upon their verbal confirmation, usually in another courtroom, that they want to go into mental health court. When they arrive, we go through the processes. and they sign a written consent form, which consents them being there voluntarily as well as access to their Alberta Health Services information.

Vinesh: Very interesting system within the system I guess, very nice to see and thank you for the work that you do in helping people in the province, thank you so much. Legal Aid Alberta lawyers specialize in family law, child welfare, domestic violence, immigration, and youth and and criminal defence. If you have a question for legal aid, send it to [email protected]

Previously on Ask a Lawyer:

Ask a Lawyer: Strengthening representation for parents in conflict with the child welfare system

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