New Brunswick

Mental health court may be back in session, province says

The New Brunswick government is looking at the possibility of bringing back a mental health court in the province, almost three years since the specialized court last sat.

New Brunswick's only mental health court closed in 2013

Mary Ann Campbell, the director of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of New Brunswick, said the news of a return of the mental health court is fantastic. (CBC)

The New Brunswick government is considering a new plan for a mental health court, almost three years since the specialized court last sat in the province.

Anne Bull, a Department of Justice spokesperson, said in a statement that the now defunct mental health court in Saint John was an effective way of dealing with people suffering from mental illness or intellectual disability who are accused of breaking the law.

She said that the financial resources are not in place to allow for the "immediate restarting" of the court.

"That is why we are diligently working with stakeholders to align the necessary components for a robust mental health court," she said.

A mental health court was established in Saint John as a permanent program in 2003 and it was the only court of its kind in New Brunswick. It was overseen by now retired Judge Alfred Brien. 

The court closed in July 2013.

According to the province, there is still no timeline for a new mental health court to be operating again.

It'd be nice if that is something that is available across the province, rather than in just one jurisdiction but you've got to start somewhere.- Mary Ann Campbell, UNB

Mary Ann Campbell, the director of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of New Brunswick, conducted two studies on the court system.

Campbell said the news of a return of the court is fantastic.

"It'd be nice if that is something that is available across the province, rather than in just one jurisdiction but you've got to start somewhere," she said.

Campbell said the separate system stood out for its approach to the people using it.

"The clients noted it was a more caring environment where the court had an interest in their welfare and they felt encouraged to do well," she said.

"[They] even felt the Crown attorney had more of their interest at heart than the very adversarial process that happens in a traditional court."

Campbell said the court consists of a team lead by a judge, but it could also include a probation officer, one or two mental health professionals, such a psychiatrist, a social worker, a nurse, a psychologist or a housing or addictions representative.

Re-offending rates

Drawing from her study of the system, Campbell said the mental health court program leads to lower or similar rates of new offences as the regular system.

"About 80 per cent or so of those that complete mental health courts generally do not commit a new offence in the one to three years after they leave the program," she said.

"It's those that don't complete it that are having compliance issues."

Bernard Richard, a former ombudsman in the province, said few resources were put into the mental health court.

"The costs of the courts are fairly low … it was just the approach that was different," he said.

Richard said a different way of doing things is necessary for people suffering from mental illness.

"We don't, in our society, punish people for being sick, that's not how we operate, yet in the criminal justice system we do exactly that," he said.

"I spent many hundreds of hours, if not thousands looking at Ashley Smith's situation, and certainly that ended up costing the system, taxpayers, obviously her family and herself dearly."

Richard, who was also New Brunswick's first child and youth advocate, investigated and reported on Smith's incarceration.

Smith, 19, originally from Moncton, died in 2007 while incarcerated in an Ontario prison. She had tied a piece of cloth around her neck while guards stood outside her cell door and watched.

Smith, who was incarcerated for the first time at age 15, was transferred 17 times among nine institutions in five provinces during the last year of her life.

An Ontario coroner's inquest included a five person jury hearing evidence from more than 80 witnesses over the course of almost 11 months of testimony in 2013.

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