Courts no place for the mentally ill

A few years ago—for reasons that don’t matter here—I ended up sitting through a full day of routine arraignment proceedings at the Spring Garden Road court house. Guilty pleas, not guilty pleas, bail hearings, trial schedulings, 30-days-to-pay-your-fine, you’re-released-on-your-own-recognizance, you’re-back-to-jail…

Somewhere in the middle of it all, a small human drama unfolded. I’m no longer sure I have the details exactly right, but I do remember the essence.


The case concerned a poor couple, probably in their mid-fifties, who’d been together forever and seemed to genuinely care for and depend on each other. But both had a variety of what are delicately described as mental health “challenges.” They also drank too much too often.

One would get angry. Fists would fly. The police would be called. The day’s aggressor would be hauled off to jail to sober up, then trundled off to court to pay the price. The victim—all having now been forgiven and forgotten in the sober light of day—would show up too, to support their partner in the joint crime of living sadly.

The judge would render a verdict, usually ordering the guilty party to stay away the person they’d hit for a period of time.

Within days—sometimes hours—they’d be back together. And then it was only a matter of time until the cycle began again.

It was a waste of everyone’s time and talent. Because everyone—the cops, the crown, the over-burdened legal aid lawyer, the judge—knew it wouldn’t solve anything.

On this particular day, the judge had had enough. For what must have been an hour, she and the equally frustrated crown and defence attorneys tried to figure out how to get the couple the help they needed instead of imposing legal sanctions that hadn’t, wouldn’t and couldn’t improve anything.

The reality is that there are still far too many such cases clogging up our judicial system to no purpose.

Which is why the opening this week of a new mental health court in Dartmouth is so encouraging. “There are limited tools available in the traditional criminal court,” as Judge Bill MacDonald, who will preside at the court, explained to Metro’s Paul MacLeod this week. “The needs of many of the people before me who have mental disorders are beyond what a traditional court can deal with.”

The mental health court won’t solve all those problems, of course, but it is a welcome start.

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