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Facing mental illness in the law

|Written By Julie Sobowale

Kelly Rowlett likes flexibility. She recently met with a client in Halifax instead of Rowlett’s Dartmouth office because her client faced a unique dilemma. The client wasn’t allowed to cross the MacKay Bridge due to her problems with suicide. So Rowlett agreed to meet in Halifax.

“People want to feel heard,” says Rowlett, a mental-health lawyer at the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission. “They want to know that they are valued members of our community.”


The mentally ill cannot be ignored. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will suffer from mental illness at one point in their life. So judges and lawyers are learning to accommodate the mentally ill in their pursuit of justice.

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin spoke about mental illness and the law at an Oct. 19 lecture at Dalhousie University. She outlined how the criminal justice system has changed from automatic hospitalization to providing psychiatric help through administrative boards. “We want the best outcome for people,” said McLachlin. “The informal process helps to provide a non-adversarial way to give help.”

Mental illness is an issue that extends beyond criminal law. The mentally ill also face housing, employment, and health issues as well in civil courts. Sometimes their issues are difficult to pinpoint. Karen Liberman, executive director of the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, says the mentally ill can suffer from memory loss, lack of concentration, and a heightened emotional state. “Imagine reading a paragraph and realizing you have no idea what you just read,” says Liberman. “Some people face that every day.”

The main issue for Liberman is accessibility. For example, a person with memory problems may have difficulty with giving details for written pleadings. The solution could be appointing an amicus curiae to help the mentally ill navigate through the proceedings. “Why do we have to start court early in the morning?” says Liberman. “Mornings can be the worst for some people due to the medication and other biological issues. We have to view the problem as a disability that we need to accommodate.”

Rowlett quickly learned about mental illness. As one of the few lawyers working at the Nova Scotia Mental Health Court, Rowlett did extensive research in personality disorders and developed networks of shelters and health professionals to help her clients. “I learned to communicate differently with my clients,” she says. “I made sure to be in contact with their case workers so that all parties knew what needed to be done.”

Courts are starting to catch up. Several cities in Canada have mental-health courts and review boards for the not criminally responsible are frequently used. In November, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society is holding a series of training seminars on mental health and the law.

“We need to look past the illness,” says Rowlett. “And treat people they way we would want to be treated.”