In his 12 years as a judge, Bill MacDonald has had the frustration of watching mentally ill people appear before him time and time again, never getting the help they need.
“There are limited tools available in the traditional criminal court,” he said yesterday. “The needs of many of the people before me who have mental disorders are beyond what a traditional court can deal with.”
Things are about to change. Starting this Thursday, MacDonald will preside over Nova Scotia’s new mental health court, a wing of the justice system specifically designed to get mentally ill offenders the treatment they need.
It was first announced in the fall of 2007 by then-Premier Rodney MacDonald on what turned out to be the same day schizophrenic Howard Hyde died in a Burnside jail 30 hours after being Tasered repeatedly by police.
The fatality inquiry into Hyde’s death has revealed numerous problems with the system. One of the most telling storylines to come out of the inquiry was a doctor who tried to get Hyde a psychiatric assessment, only to be stonewalled by the system.
MacDonald doesn’t like to speculate on whether a mental health court could have saved Hyde. But he does believe it will have a big impact on people going through the system now.
The court will meet once a week, on Thursdays, and will only deal with people who have accepted responsibility or have already been found guilty of a crime. While MacDonald has the authority to dole out punishment, the court will be more treatment-oriented.
MacDonald travelled to similar courts in New Brunswick and Ontario to study how they worked and came away impressed.
“When I talked to the judges in those courts, all of them said that the mental health court work was the most rewarding work they did as judges,” he said.
“I’m hoping I’ll be able to say the same thing.”