Skip to content

What's the prescription for B.C.'s ailing courts?

"There is more to do, and government won't stop working until we turn this crisis around," says the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.
Themis, the Goddess of Justice, holds scales of balance and is blindfolded to represent the unbiased principles of justice.

The first four parts of this series have examined the various aspects of the justice system struggling with mental burdens. (Scroll down to read the articles.)

Those who have worked in it, around it and observed it say it’s not reform that is needed to make changes.

Rather, they say, the system needs to transform.

As UBC law professor Benjamin Perrin notes in his new book, Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial, it’s an idea that goes back a century to Ruth Morris (1933-2001), author of Stories of Transformative Justice.

Morris said safety isn’t about bigger fences, worse prisons and more police.

“Safety and security — real security — come from building a community where because we have cared for and included all, that community will be there for us, when trouble comes to us,” she said.

“If we get serious about treating mental health problems as health and not as criminal problems, we’d all be better off,” Perrin told Glacier Media, noting treatment costs would be less than constantly recycling people through prisons at $116,000 a year.

Still, B.C.’s government knows there are mental health-related gaps in the justice system.

It reported as much in the Justice and Public Safety Council’s Strategic Plan for the Justice and Public Safety Sector 2020-23.

“Interventions must be focused on the root causes of offending behaviours, including mental health challenges, addictions and trauma, and also address the factors that make people more vulnerable to victimization,” said the document released by former deputy attorney general Richard Fyfe.

The report said people with mental health and/or substance use challenges continue to be significantly represented throughout the criminal justice system. The report noted recent research has established that 60 per cent of individuals under B.C. Corrections’ supervision have at least one mental health and/or substance use diagnosis, with many experiencing multiple concurrent diagnoses.

It proposed:

 • partnerships between B.C. Corrections and the Provincial Health Services Authority regarding the transfer of health services in correctional institutions;

• increasing coordination across different sectors in support of better outcomes for mental health and substance use clients; and,

• pilot projects with three police forces referring people using substances and at risk of overdose to treatment, services and peer supports instead of the criminal justice system.

The Ministry of Attorney General referred Oct. 18 questions about the report to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions (MMHA).

That ministry addressed mental health issues that can come before court interventions Fyfe discussed but not court systemic ones.

The ministry said work includes expanding mental health crisis response teams like Peer Assisted Care Teams (PACT) and Mobile Integrated Crisis Response (MICR) teams into more communities. That would give people in crisis support from health-care workers and community members, allowing police to focus on crime.

“There is more to do, and government won't stop working until we turn this crisis around. MMHA continues to work closely with the Attorney General and Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General to ensure that appropriate supports are available for those who need them,” the ministry said.

MICR teams pair a police officer with a health-care worker (typically a psychiatric nurse or social worker) to respond to mental health calls.

“The health-care worker provides on-site emotional and mental health assessments, crisis intervention and referrals to appropriate services in the community, while the police officer looks after any safety concerns and makes sure everyone is safe,” the ministry said.

B.C. currently has 10 teams, and is adding nine more in Abbotsford, Burnaby, Chilliwack, Coquitlam/Port Coquitlam, Penticton, Vernon, Squamish, Prince Rupert, and Westshore, the ministry said.

Also, Community Transition Teams work with people needing mental health help and substance abuse issue support.

In keeping with the ideas suggested by Morris, Perrin and Fyfe, those teams' work includes:

• client community engagement and development of program partnerships with community groups, agencies, and organizations;

• peer support workers;

• connecting people with a community physician for medication-assisted treatment; and,

• connecting people with psychiatric, clinical, social, and specialized supports.

Further, the ministry said, government continues to invest in housing, addiction treatment and social supports, all of which can divert people from the justice system before they arrive there.

Legal Aid

Throughout this series, the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2016 decision in R. v. Jordan, which put time ceilings on criminal cases depending on case type has arisen. If those is not met, an accused’s constitutional rights are at risk of being violated and charges could be stayed.

Legal Aid BC CEO Michael Bryant called Jordan a call to action.

In an April 8 letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti, Bryant called legal aid, “the only public sector entity within Canada’s criminal legal system whose primary job is to defend the racialized, the Indigenous, the mentally ill and addicted.”

“It is no exaggeration to say that provincial legal aid has always been the only solution available to a wrongful arrest, wrongful prosecution, disproportionate sentence, and miscarriage of justice.”

He cited a court culture of complacency leading to delay and the toleration of ‘excessive delays.’ And, he said, a major issue contributing to court backlogs since Jordan is the underfunding of legal aid.

“The result is a system that risks violations, undermines access to justice, and does not serve the public interest,” Bryant said. “Notwithstanding the court’s clear direction for all justice system participants to work together to solve these problems, the situation has gotten worse. In British Columbia, courts are sitting longer hours, but criminal cases are still taking longer to resolve, and fewer matters are being disposed of each year.”

Meanwhile, in October, legal aid began its navigator program to assist clients. 

So-called legal aid navigators have so far assisted 200 people with time-sensitive matters in accessing help more quickly.

Clients receive ongoing assistance for complex issues outside the responsibility of regular legal aid intake workers and lawyers.

"Legal aid navigators can also address each client’s underlying needs and connect them to support organizations in their communities and regular check-ins," the group said in a statement. "One of the goals is to improve client legal outcomes — often strongly correlated with issues like addictions, housing, and mental health."


Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) executive director Derek LaCroix told Glacier Media lawyers are often burned out and unable to represent their clients by the time they get to him. The LAP outlines help and changes needed on its website.

The site references an American Bar Association (ABA) well-being resource that notes law students should be provided with mental health and substance use information as they embark on their careers.

Perrin quit drinking years ago. He said it’s part of the profession’s culture.

“We know lawyers have disproportionate use of substances and alcohol,” he said.

Perrin said he discusses such perils with his students, suggesting healthy ways to deal with stress.

“We don’t live these rarefied lives,” he said. “We have these struggles, too.”

The ABA said programs such as LaCroix’s need to be adequately funded.

The ABA further suggests that lawyers’ professional liability insurance carriers promote well-being as a way to reduce risk liability.

“Depression, anxiety, chronic stress, burnout, and substance use disorders exceed those of many other professions,” the ABA said. “We have ignored this state of affairs long enough.”

LaCroix said voiding one’s values for one’s work can lead to ethical problems which can, in turn, lead to emotional well-being problems.

“How do I maintain my integrity while adjusting to my situation?” he suggested as a question for lawyers to ponder.

LaCroix said lawyers are missing the sense of satisfaction and well-being coming from being of service.

“Clearly, change is needed,” he said. “Among other things, flexibility in working practices is often referred to, as is prioritizing well-being (individual uniqueness) and reinvigorating the ‘meaning’ and purpose of the work.”

LaCroix said lawyers need to be supported to make personal changes and to develop an awareness of what is needed to develop lawyers’ well-being and to nurture all dimensions of their lives.

“This work need not be daunting or overwhelming,” he said. “It is best incorporated into our lives as a continuous process.” 

Sheriffs and court staff

As we saw in part four of this series, the sheriffs who provide court security and support are suffering from stress and burnout.

Attorney General Nikki Sharma has said work is underway to train new deputies to relieve that strain.

Her ministry said teams are on the ground supervised by a psychologist to identify problems as they arise and for people to be referred to professional services for help if need be.

However, sheriffs Glacier Media spoke with said that’s not enough.

They pointed to recommendations from a coroner's inquest related to the suicide of one of the Vancouver Police Department’s constables — Nicole Chan, who died in 2019 while on stress leave from her job.

In January of this year, a coroner's jury heard that Chan's suicide stemmed from mental health issues associated with relationships with two male co-workers, including then-Sgt. David Van Patten, who "manipulated or coerced" her into having sex.

Sheriffs pointed to two specific recommendations from the Chan inquest.

First, they agree that mandatory psychological clinical interviews be part of every police recruitment process whereby the psychologists recommendations are considered.

Second, they believe annual psychological check-ins should be mandatory for all sheriffs.

“Ensuring BC Sheriff Service staff have access to mental health supports is of utmost importance. While BCSS does not require its staff to undergo annual clinical psychological assessments, and there are no current plans to do so, the (service) is committed to monitoring its mental health supports, listening to feedback from staff, and making changes when necessary,” the ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, court clerks and registry staff deal with vicarious trauma from files they handle or hear, as well as stresses from short staffing or safety concerns due to a sheriff shortage.

B.C. General Employees' Union spokesperson DJ Pohl said those employees are encouraged to use to the government’s Employee Family Assistance Program unless they seek personal counselling.

However, Pohl said, there are concerns about the services that program provides and also that it may not be well-versed for court-related issues. Pohl suggested a need for appropriate and specialized support and that services should be integrated into the work process.

Debriefing does occur but can take one to five years depending on when a case ends.

“The impact/exposure occurs at the start of the case work,” Pohl said.