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Access to Justice: Justice system could learn from Nova Scotia veterans outreach program | Thomas Cromwell

Wednesday, July 19, 2017 @ 9:19 AM | By Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell %>
Thomas Cromwell
Let’s see more of this.

Life isn’t organized like the Canadian Abridgement. The real problems of real people don’t sort themselves into neat categories and they are not contained in watertight compartments. A person’s legal problem is often only one dimension of a much bigger, more complex and multi-faceted problem. And we know that one of the biggest impediments to access to justice results from our justice system failing to respond to these multi-faceted problems in ways that are meaningful and practical.

Our justice system is complex, with lines of authority and responsibility that are often diffuse and unclear. Its components exist in silos — judges, lawyers, court officials — so that co-ordinated work toward a common goal is difficult to achieve. And too often, the justice system is unduly insular so that it is often unable or unwilling to collaborate with other government and community resources, let alone co-ordinate its priorities and approaches with them. In short, making our legal system respond to the real problems of real people is often too big a challenge for it to meet.

That is why the Veterans Justice Outreach featured in Donalee Moulton’s May 15 article is so encouraging. According to the press release announcing the program, it will better identify, track and explore alternatives to incarceration for veterans encountering the criminal justice system. While it is presently focused on criminal justice diversion programs such as Mental Health Courts, the program’s goal is to work toward a standardized model that will include other sectors of justice and correctional systems across the country.

How rarely do we see in the justice system the sort of federal provincial and cross-ministry collaboration and co-ordination that is evident in this program. Veterans Affairs Canada has collaborated with Nova Scotia’s Provincial Court Mental Health Court so that services to veterans are co-ordinated with provincial service providers. The initiative recognizes that at the root of many veterans’ encounters with the criminal justice system are problems of mental health, addictions or substance abuse related to the person’s military service.

Nova Scotia’s Mental Health Court, like its counterparts across the country, is focused on therapeutic and collaborative approaches, with a team made up of professionals from the provincial justice and health care systems. What is new is that a federal Veteran Affairs case worker will work with the team to screen applicants and work with those eligible for the program.

The design of this program has features that should be adopted much more widely in other areas of the justice system. First, the initiative is premised on the belief that we should try to deal with the whole person and recognizes that often the legal aspect of a person’s situations is the result of rather than the cause of the real difficulty. Second, the initiative recognizes that there are already extensive resources available in the community and that what is needed is improved co-ordination of those services. Third, the initiative brings together service providers from a variety of government departments and from different levels of government. Finally, the program is being monitored so that its impact can be assessed and, if successful, its approach adopted elsewhere.

Federal Minister Kent Hehr, Chief Judge Pamela Williams of the Nova Scotia provincial court and everyone else involved in this innovative program should be congratulated. And their collaborative and co-ordinated approach to helping address the needs of the whole person before the court should be emulated everywhere in our justice system. Only then will our justice system move from being what it too often is — part of the problem — to what it ought to be — part of the solution.

The Honourable Thomas Cromwell served 19 years as an appellate judge and chairs the Chief Justice’s Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. He retired from the Supreme Court of Canada in September of 2016 and is now senior counsel to the national litigation practice at Borden Ladner Gervais.