Manitoba launches mental-health court

The Province of Manitoba is moving forward in its efforts to improve social services with a new mental-health court opening next month.

The new court is similar to the Winnipeg Drug Treatment Court, which specifically deals with drug-addicted offenders. In the new court, a health team will provide support to offenders with mental-health issues and develop a treatment plan, which can include counselling, employment and educational assistance, and the involvement of family members. Taking a hands-on approach, the judge will also meet with the team weekly to discuss offenders’ progress.

The mental-health court aims to provide better support to offenders suffering from mental illness. Peter Tonge tells Legal Feeds that appropriate care is desperately needed. As a criminal lawyer with Legal Aid Manitoba, the majority of Tonge’s caseload involves clients with mental-health issues.

“[A] lot of people that find themselves in the criminal justice system suffer from severe mental illness and they end up in jail because there isn’t a more appropriate place for them to be immediately,” he says. “So we need the mental-health court, which takes people that have been charged with criminal offences and then finds appropriate placement and treatment for them rather than jail as punishment.”

The specialized court will focus on rehabilitation.

“The court anticipates that, as each accused’s mental health improves, their appearances may become less frequent,” said provincial court Chief Judge Ken Champagne in a release. “Upon the treatment plan being completed, the accused will make a final appearance before the mental-health court judge either to be sentenced to a community-based disposition or for the Crown to stay the charges. The entire process is expected to take 18 to 24 months from referral to disposition.”

Judges, lawyers, and staff members working with the mental-health court will also receive specialized training.

Tonge suspects a large percentage of his caseload will be referred to the mental-health court.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he says. “[Offenders] get the care that they need and society gets the security that it’s looking for.”

Justice Minister Andrew Swan echoed that statement. “Problem-solving courts like this help make our communities safer by recognizing and addressing the core reasons people come into conflict with the law in the first place,” he said.

The court will begin sitting on May 10.

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