Reasonable Doubt: When courts change their role and become proactive in your community

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      Last week Mike McCubbin discussed using the courts for social change and the benefit and hardships of turning to the court cure social ills. He pointed out that the courts are generally reactive and control their own processes in order to see that justice is done between two litigants.

      What happens when the court, of its own initiative, sees a social gap that needs to be filled? What happens when courts stop being reactive and start being proactive?

      Every day, hundreds of people are cycled through the criminal and family provincial court lists. Every day judges see the same problems presented to them over and over again. Unfortunately, they also tend to see some of the same people over and over again.

      As a new lawyer, I was surprised when advocating for a client in court to learn that the judge knew my client better than I did. The reality is that historical injustices (i.e. residential schools), mental health issues, addiction, and family violence bring the same people back to courts time and time again.

      So you can imagine the frustration that judges experience criminal courts when they see in a single day 10 times the volume of people in court with the same problems compared to the average lawyer. Keeping this in mind, it is not hard to understand why specialized courts or programs have been springing up around the province to deal with these issues.

      In Vancouver, provincial court judge Palmer led the initiative for establishing “Drug-Treatment Court” for those suffering from addictions. In Victoria, provincial court judge Quantz led the initiative for establishing “Integrated Court”, a court designed to deal with people in the system with mental health issues. Similarly in Duncan and New Westminster, “First Nations Courts” have been established for offenders with First Nations heritage.

      These specialized courts are each a result of the courts acknowledging a gap in our justice system and the greater society we live in. The people the courts are designed for are people who need extra support in the community; those whose needs cannot be met by the traditional court system.

      Each of these specialized court systems are only available for people at the sentencing stage of the criminal court process and are only available if the offenders consent to being involved and are accepted after an application procedure.

      Once a person enters into one of these specialized courts, there is an investigation or inquiry done into the person’s background and current lifestyle to determine where there are problems and how the court can support the person to get back on their feet.

      The specialized courts have social workers or other support workers at their disposal to aid in finding rehabilitative programs or housing for the offenders. These support workers will also provide the court updates on the progress of the offender as time goes on.

      An offender will appear in the specialized court usually once every two weeks to give the judge an update on what they have been doing. Depending on whether the person has made progress or fallen back a step, the court will provide encouragement and/or admonition to keep the offender on the right track. The court will outline specific steps that the offender must take before the next court appearance.

      The standard time that an offender will be involved in the specialized court process varies, but it is not uncommon to see an offender be in the court for up to a year or at least 18 months in the case of Drug-treatment court.

      Do these courts work? Do they get the people suffering from social ills out of the system?

      There are mixed results. Much of the reason why these courts may not have an impact on the larger criminal justice system is because they are entirely voluntary and are an extremely onerous obligation. At worst, they can be seen as patronizing and not suited to all personality types.

      With Integrated Court, where the offenders tend to be the people that otherwise fall through the cracks, the Court is successful in connecting them with the community and support workers that can help to stabilize them and make sure they are housed, fed, and have some care.

      With Drug-Treatment Court, people with addictions are connected to the best resources available in the province to help them fight their addiction. There is no cure-all for addiction, however, and there are many offenders who complete the program that end up using drugs again.

      With First Nations Court, the court may be successful in connecting the offender to a heritage or a culture that they’ve been disassociated from, in addition to finding culturally specific ways to make reparations for harm an offender has done.

      To the people that these courts help, the services they connect an offender with are invaluable. These courts gather information about resources in a specific community and connect those in need with the resources. As more people pass through these courts, the court system will undoubtedly put pressure on the greater system to start providing adequate resources to meet these people’s needs, hopefully causing a positive ripple effect for social change.