"So many dreams at first seem impossible. And then they seem improbable. And then when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable."
~ Christopher Reeve

Friday, October 31, 2008

Mental Health Courts ~ The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The custodial response to people with mental health problems is an historic one. To incarcerate people merely because we have failed to develop appropriate supports has always been shameful. In 2007, this is totally unacceptable.”
~
Archie Kaiser, Professor, Faculty of Law and Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University
Canadian statistics show that 12 per cent of men in federal institutions in 2007 had a mental disorder, up from seven per cent in 1997. The rate of mentally ill women in prisons was even higher, at 21 per cent, compared with 13 per cent in 1997.

In a similar vein, American research has found that more than 16 per cent of adults in jail have a mental illness, roughly 20 per cent of young people in the juvenile system have a serious mental health problem and 40 per cent of Americans with a mental health problem will butt up against the U.S. justice system at some time in their life.

Viewing such statistics and depending on your point of view (perspective, as they say, is everything) the concept of a "mental health court" can look like a very good or a very bad idea. But no matter your point of view, such courts (part of the Progressive Conservative government's crime-reduction strategy) will soon be a reality in Nova Scotia.

The plan is to have the system running by April 1, 2009. After visiting different court models in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador, the Nova Scotia Department of Justice ultimately opted for a referral system that would see offenders treated by a team of trained court staff, including social workers and a probation officer. The Nova Scotia court model is to allow family, friends and justice officials to refer such offenders for help through the mental health court, with candidates first having to undergo an assessment, be found fit to stand trial and be willing to accept responsibility for their actions.

As in the regular court system, sanctions at the end of the day could range from an absolute discharge all the way up to incarceration. However, the bottom line of the mental health court is said to be to get the person out of the criminal justice system.

In general, the concept appears to be supported by the police. According to Halifax police Chief Frank Beazley
"You go from the courtroom to the social services, who then get you through the housing people who get you through the doctors — whatever you need to deal with that individual," he said. "It's a much superior approach."

Beazley said his officers will deal with 1,100 to 1,200 calls this year related to incidents involving people with mental illnesses.

"Those are the ones that are coded either mental health or suicide, attempted suicide, but there's many calls we go to that get coded theft or robbery where there's a mental health issue also," he said.
But not only the police are in agreement. Noting that people should not be criminalized because of their mental illness, the executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Nova Scotia branch has also said the theory behind a specialized mental health court is "an excellent one."

That theory being that by connecting people with mental illness who have committed low-level crimes with community-based treatment, we can make better use of our jails and tax dollars, increase public safety, and make our communities healthier.

And the research does look promising. Participants in one American mental health court program received more mental health services and spent fewer days in jail than they might otherwise have if they had been sentenced in the criminal court and fewer days in jail than they spent related to a prior arrest.

Despite this, concerns remain in some circles about mental health courts, which are really still in their infancy in Canada. Some fear that such courts simply generate more stigma and forced treatment of persons with mental illnesses.

Still, recalling the case of the mentally ill Nova Scotian woman who was ordered into the care of the provincial Health Department by the court after it failed to find her a suitable place to live while awaiting the outcome of numerous charges, one can't help but think that something must be done. Something has to change. Only time will tell whether mental health courts are at least part of the answer here in Nova Scotia.

The issue of how the courts deal with accused with mental health issues is also currently being examined in New Brunswick.

Update: For a fuller, more depresing view of the extent of the mental health crisis within the justice system, check out this interesting Globe and Mail story.

**You can view the relevant legislation, the Mental Health Court Act, here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Saving Now and Paying Later ~ Generic Will Kits

Surfing around the blogosphere this evening (when I really should be doing so many other things), I came across this piece at Sui Generis -- a New York Blog concerning online wills. Which - although as the name states is a New York legal blog - raises a very valid point.

I have been concerned for quite a while over the rising profusion of mail-order will kits. As pointed by Elizabeth Randisi at Sui Generis, although such Wills would most likely be adequate for some, a generic online (or mail order) document might completely "miss the mark" on a person’s estate plan. And equally generic "disclaimers" advising when one might require the services of a lawyer can often miss the mark as well.

We've already discussed the need for some very precise wording when it comes to protecting your beneficiary's government benefits when using a Henson Trust. As well as how important it is to ensure you find a lawyer who actually knows how to draft such a document properly.

So just in case you think these circumstances are likely to mix well with a mail order or online generic will kit, you might want to think again.

Just a word to the wise. And the cautious.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Small Victories

I wrote earlier this year about my personal endeavour to have our local bus company institute a policy to which would allow the support person of a person with a disability to ride free of charge when accompanying the person with a disability. As I noted at the time, although they did have a policy in conjunction with the CNIB, providing that a blind person could travel with a support person without paying or a second fare, no policy existed around any other disabilities.

It was just in the midst of that little debate that the Canadian Transportation Agency "released a landmark decision concerning the right of individuals with disabilities to travel by air without having to pay for a second seat, for an attendant or other use, to accommodate their disability. In a historic decision in the “One Person, One Fare” case, the agency has recognized the right of these individuals to have access to a second seat when traveling by air in Canada without having to pay a second fare".

Which sounded like good ammo to me.

At any rate, I am pleased to announce that in June, 2008, Kings Transit passed the following policy:
Where any rider with a disability that requires the need of an attendant to ride the Kings Transit bus system the attendant shall be entitled to ride free of charge.

All riders requiring attendants shall fill out a form and register with Kings Transit identifying who their attendants are.

Attendants are only entitled free ridership while in the presence of their client and if necessary their return trip should they be returning alone.

Riders shall notify Kings Transit of any changes with their attendants.
Which just goes to show, I suppose, that we should never, ever give up. We will get there. Eventually. One step. One policy at a time.

And, lest we foget, kudos to Kings Transit.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Let Your Voice Be Heard

Good news, this.
The Canadian Association for Community Living has developed a disability specific analysis of Federal election platforms for the Conservative Party of Canada, the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party and the Green Party of Canada.

CACL does not endorse any particular party or platform; the purpose of this analysis is to provide an overview of commitments to persons with disabilities. To see where the parties stand on disability please click here http://www.cacl.ca/infoat/

There is also the general election information and links to both INFO@ at www.cacl.ca/english/government/elections.asp
According to the website the analysis uses the three issues CACL identified as election priorities as the benchmarks for reviewing party platforms; namely,

  1. Poverty – Making the Disability Tax Credit refundable for low income Canadians and establishing specific participation targets for persons with disabilities within Labour Market Agreements;

  2. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Ratifying by March 2009; and

  3. Inclusive and Accessible Communities – ensuring adequate financial investment to create inclusive and accessible communities; incorporating a disability lens in regards to general investments, government polices and programs to ensure that new and continued investments are inclusive and not creating new barriers and obstacles for people with disabilities


So check it out and make your vote count on October 14th.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pro Bono Publico

Courtesy of Wikipedia:
Pro bono publico (usually shortened to pro bono) is a phrase derived from Latin meaning "for the public good." The term is sometimes used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment as a public service. It is common in the legal profession and is increasingly seen in marketing, technology, and strategy consulting firms. Pro bono service, unlike traditional volunteerism, uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.

Pro bono legal counsel may assist an individual or group on a legal case, in filing government applications or petitions, or on appeal. A judge may occasionally determine that the loser should compensate a winning pro bono counsel.
And on that note, I was pleased to attend the Nova Scotia Pro Bono Study's Round Table Discussion this past Friday in Halifax.

It was a good meeting of not just lawyers, law professors and law students but also individuals representing various mental health, immigration and youth services in the community. And I was pleased to see that the disability community was well-represented by the attendance and advocacy of Professor Archie Kaiser, who currently serves on the Board of Directors of both reachAbility and the Nova Scotia Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The purpose of the various Round Tables being held throughout the Province (**the remaining upcoming Round Tables include Sydney and Antigonish) is to study engagement and interest in pro bono legal work and examine whether a formal pro bono program would benefit the communities in Nova Scotia.

So, here is just a smattering of what I learned on Friday.

  • Every law school in Canada currently has a Pro Bono Students Association.

  • In addition, four provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and, most recently, Saskatchewan) have Pro Bono Associations.

  • Some models currently in use include drop-in centres at the court house manned on a rotating basis so two volunteer lawyers are always present (Ontario) and "summary advice clinics" where individuals receive one-half hour consultations with a lawyer at no charge and if further legal representation is required, the individual will be referred to a lawyer who has agreed to make this larger time commitment (British Columbia).

  • The suggestion was also made that not every individual seeking "legal advice" necessarily requires the services of a lawyer; a social worker or court worker (who can assist with procedural questions and the filling out of forms) may be all that is actually required in some cases.

  • Another idea floated was that of a pro bono volunteer "board" where lawyers interested in volunteering as a member of a community board could be matched up with an organization seeking such a board member.

  • Issues raised for me when discussing the above models included what the income cut-off line would be for such a service and the necessity of "streaming" people in the proper direction, so that those who actually did need to speak to a lawyer would be able to do so.
As I said, it was a good discussion and I think it was well worth my (and by extension, your) time. This is an issue that really needs to move forward in this Province and, at least in the small sub-group I was involved in, the two communities most identified as needing such a service were youth and the disabled.

But what was really heartening and exciting for me, personally, was to see was a committed, passionate group of Nova Scotia lawyers who recognize the need for such an initiative and appear willing to move it forward.

The Study is currently gathering information from stakeholders around the Province through these Round Tables and surveys of the legal profession and will be presenting a final report/presentation in the Spring of 2009.

And fortunately for you, it's still not too late. You can provide your valuable input to this initiative by completing the Community Members Survey.

So stick around and I will keep you updated.

** Antigonish: Monday October 6, 2:30-4pm, Maritime Inn, 158 Main Street.
Sydney: Tuesday October 7, 10-11:30pm, Program Room, McConnell Library, 50 Falmouth St.
Please confirm attendance in advance at: (902) 429-1913 or nsprobono@gmail.com


Update: Organizations currently offering pro bono services include reachAbility, the Halifax Refugee Clinic, Canadian Mental Health Association, Nova Scotia Legal Aid, Legal Information Society, Dalhousie Legal Aid, Pro Bono Students Canada and various religious institutions.