The Manitoba government is spending more than $600,000 to establish a mental health court.

The specialized court, which will likely begin hearing cases in later 2011, will work with people whose mental-health issues are the likely cause of their criminal behaviour, said Justice Minister Andrew Swan.

"This innovative new court will help individuals with mental illness get the help they need and also help to increase the safety of our communities," Swan said at a press conference Tuesday.

The mental health court will be similar to those in provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia, and also to the Winnipeg drug-treatment court, where some addicts can involve themselves in rehabilitative programs under court supervision and avoid jail or other criminal sanctions.

'We know that there are accused persons before the court who are challenged by mental illness and that their mental illness is most often the cause for their offending behaviour.'—provincial court Chief Judge Ken Champagne

Swan says the new court will only be available to people accused of non-violent crimes and only if they are found by professionals to have mental-health problems.

The court will have the power to order treatment such as addiction counselling and admission to a hospital.

"By diverting people with mental illness from jails into treatment, we will reduce reoffence rates," Swan said.

That approach will cut down on a backlog of cases before the courts — cases often involving the same people facing less serious crimes on a frequent basis.

The mental health court would get them the treatment they need to live in the community and prevent them from reoffending, said Winnipeg's forensic pyschiatrist Dr. Stanley Yaren.

"We know that there are accused persons before the court who are challenged by mental illness and that their mental illness is most often the cause for their offending behaviour," added provincial court Chief Judge Ken Champagne.

"I am confident that the supports and assistance provided by a mental health court will enable these Manitobans to get back on track with their lives and help to ensure that they do not become re-involved in the criminal justice system in the future."

Swan said a multi-disciplinary team, operated by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, will provide supports and assessment of mental health status, development of service and treatment plans, and support and information for family members.

He said development of a service and treatment plan could include:

  • Community support for basic needs, counselling and day programs.
  • Focused intensive case management by a community-treatment team.
  • Addictions counselling.
  • Employment and educational supports.
  • Admission to hospital for intensive assessment and stabilization.
  • Community service work rather than jail time.
  • An apology to the victim or others affected by the crime.

"Research tells us that prolonged contact with the justice system by people with mental illness can have negative effects that lead to repeated involvement with the law," said Health Minister Theresa Oswald.

"This mental health court is a problem-solving court that will address the underlying problems that can contribute to criminal behaviour and will result in better outcomes including a better quality of life for individuals experiencing mental-health problems and illnesses."

With files from The Canadian Press