John McCamus, National Post | 11/12/13 | Last Updated: 10/12/13 1:30 PM ET
Too many Canadians with mental health challenges are falling through the cracks in our court system..
Those of us who have ever gone through a divorce, struggled with employment issues, or had problems with a landlord, know full well the stress that any of these matters can bring.
Now imagine having to deal with a mental illness on top of everything else.
For a lot of Ontarians with mental health issues, legal problems don’t exist in isolation. Too often there are multiple legal needs that cut across the entire justice system.
It’s estimated that up to 40% of people accused of a crime have some sort of mental illness. Research also shows that, over the last 10 years, there has been a 44% increase in the number of hearings to review the status of people found to be unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder.
And all of this is happening at a time when there are fewer lawyers able to represent clients with mental illnesses.
As the chair of Legal Aid Ontario, I believe we are failing clients, their families and all Ontarians if the justice system continues to exclusively rely on traditional approaches. This is why Legal Aid is now in the midst of developing a mental health strategy to combine what currently works with more contemporary approaches. We know that there’s great potential for the justice system to improve its partnership with social and health agencies to support our mutual clients, and we’re determined to make sure we’re getting it done right.
This year, there’s been a lot of talk about “access to justice” — the ability of a citizen to have proper representation at a fair hearing — especially after the Canadian Bar Association released a report about how there is profoundly unequal access to justice in Canada. The report called for more than “quick fix” solutions. I fully endorse this call.
I suspect that a lot of us in the justice sector have a long wish list of what’s needed so that nobody winds up falling through the cracks. And while more resources are always desirable, we also need to take a practical approach in seeing what we can do right now with what we do have.
While Legal Aid and our community legal clinics have already started to enhance services through partnerships with the health-care community, we also recognize the importance of turning to mental health experts to help us develop the kind of face-to-face services that better meet the needs of the mentally ill. Earlier this year, Legal Aid Ontario announced a partnership with the Mental Health Commission of Canada to train legal aid staff to identify the signs of mental illness and develop better responses. This pilot training program will be followed by a roll out to other legal aid plans across Canada.
This is just a start. In the next several months, Legal Aid will be consulting with both the mental health and justice sectors to look beyond what we’re currently doing, to see what we should be doing.
I know Legal Aid doesn’t have all the answers yet — but I am convinced that, through collaboration and partnership, we can start to reshape the landscape of justice. We look forward to collaborating with our partners in the justice and health-care sectors as we begin to take on the task of making sure that every Canadian, whatever their mental health challenges, is able to benefit fully from all the rights and protections offered to them by law.
John McCamus is the chair of Legal Aid Ontario.