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Mental Health Issues Continue to be Misunderstood in Criminal Law

Bell Let’s Talk Day, which took place on January 28, 2014, is a fantastic initiative designed to raise awareness about mental health issues.  The initiative does a fantastic job at opening up conversations and telling people who suffer from mental health issues, many of whom suffer in silence, that they are not alone.

Every day in criminal courts across the province there are accused persons who suffer from such issues being herded through the system.  For many, nobody will ever know of their issues.  For countless others, it may be known, but nobody will necessarily care.  For those with noticeable concerns, courts may declare them unfit to stand trial or non-criminally responsible (NCR) for any offences committed.  Both of these extreme cases are ones that both clients and defence lawyers prefer to avoid.  In the case of an NCR finding the result could be years in a secure mental facility until discharged by the Ontario Review Board.  For minor offences, such a result ends up being many times more restrictive than simply being found guilty of the offence and serving a sentence.

What about those who don’t fit into these extreme categories?

Many courts offer fantastic resources and mental health diversion programs, but access to these programs often require the issue to be identified, the person willing to work with the program staff, and a defence lawyer who understands the issue and is able to bring it to the forefront.  In order to enter a diversion program a Crown Attorney must agree to such a form of disposition.  Unfortunately many Crowns do not understand mental health issues and how they may lead to the commission of criminal offences; they would prefer a conviction and sentence over a program that would get someone help and not result in a criminal conviction that would have lifelong implications.  I would like to see better education programs directed towards Crown Attorneys to better screen and understand these issues.  This is not to say that this is a systemic problem in the Crown’s office.  There are many wonderful Crowns out there who really do get it

The defence bar also needs to take some responsibility.  It is our job to learn about the issues faced by our clients and properly advocate for them within the confines of the system, and in some cases try and make changes to the way the system functions as a whole.

This blog post was written by Toronto Criminal Lawyer Adam Goodman. Adam can be reached at 416-477-6793 or by email at adam@aglaw.ca.