Spike in cases involving mental disorders causing backlog for court psychiatrist

A Calgary-based forensic psychiatrist says a recent trend in criminal behaviour and limited resources are behind the backlog of court-ordered tests, which is causing delays in the court system.

Dr. Ken Hashman says with limited resources they must prioritize, which can lead to court backlog

Staff at the Southern Alberta Forensic Psyciatry Centre do nearly 900 court-ordered assessments per year, while hundreds more are done at the Calgary Court Centre. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

A Calgary-based forensic psychiatrist says limited resources and a recent trend in criminal behaviour are behind the backlog of court-ordered tests, which is causing delays in Alberta's court system.    

Earlier this week, sentencing in a violent sexual assault in Lethbridge was delayed because the offender's assessment couldn't get done.

Dr. Ken Hashman says staff at the Southern Alberta Forensic Psychiatry Centre do nearly 900 court-ordered assessments per year, plus hundreds more at the Calgary Court Centre.

But those get pushed aside when they get an emergency call to assess and treat someone in custody who is either psychotic or suicidal.

"We are seeing a greater prevalence of individuals presenting both at the hospital and in custody with severe mental disorders and certainly with addictions as well," he said.

Hashman says they used to get about 30 calls per year, which doubled in recent years. 

In the past six months they've had 44.

"So they, of course, pre-empt any kind of immediate court-ordered assessment," Hashman said.

"We have to bring these people in because we are the only designated facility for southern Alberta to manage people that are both detained in custody and typically certified under the mental health act."

More people unfit to stand trial

Hashman says there are ongoing efforts at the national and provincial level to understand why there seems to be a greater number of people suffering from severe mental health disorders.

On top of emergency admissions, Hashman says another recent trend is affecting the ability to do court-ordered assessments.

He says the number of people who have either been deemed unfit to stand trial or found to be not criminally responsible by the courts has doubled from about 30 to 57 in recent years.

And if they require hospitalization, Hashman says, they must be housed at the Southern Alberta Forensic Psychiatry Centre.

Hashman says they are working with the province to secure more resources.

"I know we are in queue for capital dollars and for operational dollars so that we will fully expand and be able to provide assessment and treatment with a full ward for the not criminally responsible, which will free up more beds for these court-ordered assessments," he said.

Dan Chivers, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, says the court-ordered psychiatric reports must be done in a timely fashion, and he finds the delays concerning. (Peter Evans/CBC News)

Dan Chivers, the head of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, says he understands the demands placed on forensic psychiatry and the need to prioritize, but says he finds the ongoing delays concerning.

"These reports should be finished in a timely fashion, so people can be sentenced in a timely fashion to a proper sentence and serve their sentences in penal institutions and not remand centres," he said.

Chivers says these delays are supposed to be in exceptional or compelling circumstances, but he says it's becoming so bad that it's almost anticipated there will be requests for extensions on assessments.

"And that's really unfortunate you are dealing with the mentally ill, people who are low functioning, many times not having an understanding of what's going on."