Mental health court system flawed, but works: lawyer

A St. John's lawyer with expertise in mental health cases says the test to determine if someone is fit to stand trial may be flawed, but it works.

A St. John's lawyer with expertise in mental health cases says the process to determine if someone is fit to stand trial may be flawed, but it works.

"Basically stated, the person has to understand who the judge is, and what is their role; who the prosecutor is and what is their role; who the defence is, and what is their role," said Mark Gruchy, who's also president of the Canadian Mental Health Association's provincial chapter.

"Why they are in court, why they are there. What are the possible consequences of this whole process, and they also have to be able to communicate with their lawyer," he said.

Gruchy's comments come as the case of Alexandria Harnum, 22, works its way through the provincial court system.

Alexandria Harnum, 22, is escorted from provincial court in St. john's by a sheriff's officer. ((CBC))

Harnum's actions in court have raised doubt about her mental fitness, and whether her case should be heard in the province's mental health court.

It's a sentiment even the judge, Lois Skanes, has raised publicly during the proceedings.

"From my observation as a lay person, she doesn't seem fit," Skanes said, during a recent court appearance by Harnum.

Her comments were based on several outbursts and unusual behaviour by Harnum in front of the judge.

In January, she ripped a clump hair from the scalp of a female sheriff's officer during a bail hearing. Harnum had been charged with assaulting a woman at Lottie's Bar on George Street in St. John's. It took five more sheriff's officers to get her under control and carry her from the courtroom.

Harnum has also made some bizarre and rambling comments before the judge, such as, "I'm tired of the abuse. Someone in my cell tells me I have to be abused by the embassy."

And later, "How about we go fishin'? I hates fishin'. I'm trying to find clarity and sanity to my mind and body. I pretty much feel like a vegetable."

Opinions differ

While Skanes suspects Harnum has mental health issues, two psychiatrists who examined her appear split.

One concluded Harnum has no mental illness. The other said she was fit for court, but suffers from bi-polar disorder and psychosis.

Gruchy said while the system appears flawed, it does work and prevents people from being pushed into the mental health category where they could have less control over their lives.

"If you don't have those checks and balances you can have a situation unfold similar to what we see in Russia and China, which is the utilization of the psychiatric system as a control measure, as a punitive device," he said.

"Clearly that's wrong. Our system is focused on ensuring that doesn't happen and maintaining the balance."

Harnum has a 16-page criminal record with more than 70 convictions — 10 of them for assaulting officers.

She's due back in court on Feb. 20 when the two psychiatrists who found her fit to stand trial are expected to testify.