Edmonton’s Mental Health Court is more important than ever as many Albertans face mental hardships amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It gives us a chance to provide more meaningful types of resolutions,” said Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Amna Qureshi.
The Edmonton Mental Health Court opened as a pilot project in 2018. It’s meant to help those with mental health issues better navigate the justice system.
“It’s the first of its kind in Alberta — but not the first of its kind in Canada,” Qureshi said. “It’s modelled after a number of very successfully running mental health courts elsewhere in the country, like Toronto.”
The Edmonton court is open to those who have been charged with a criminal offence and who also have brain injuries, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or mental illness like bipolar disorder and major depression.
Qureshi said once a client is referred to the court by a judge, they will be dealing with not only legal officials like judges and counsel, but also psychiatrists, nurses and social services.
“It really is a problem-solving court,” she said. “We call it a therapeutic court. It’s a form of therapeutic justice.
“It takes into account the fact that many of the community’s most vulnerable, who are in conflict with the law, often struggle with mental health issues.”
She added the court also works to help with issues like homelessness, poverty, addictions and trauma.
“It’s an approach to take into account — in a holistic way — all of these other factors or issues that people might be struggling with at the same time as maybe being in conflict with the law.
“It gives us a chance to provide more meaningful types of resolutions.”
There are some limits on who qualifies for Mental Health Court; those charged with murder, drug prosecutions and breaches of long-term offender orders are not permitted to attend.
Qureshi said that the court is more of a collaborative discussion as opposed to the conventional court experience.
“Everyone works together, taking into account all these factors that the individual comes before us may be struggling with,” she said. “We meet people where they’re at, and that may mean assisting them with basic needs like food, shelter. We take care, or try and direct our attention towards those issues at the same time as dealing with their legal issues.
“We’re able to look at where they’re at, and come as a team to a resolution… and make sure they aren’t set up for failure.”
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