The Dartmouth Wellness Court is the longest running wellness court program in the province. It operates out of Courtroom 5 at the Provincial Court in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Formerly known as the Nova Scotia Mental Health Court Program, the Dartmouth Wellness Court works with staff from Mental Health and Addictions at the Nova Scotia Health Authority and other government and community organizations to administer the Mental Health Court Program and the Substance Use Disorder Program.
The Court Team
The court team consists of a Crown attorney, a defence attorney from Nova Scotia Legal Aid, a probation officer, three mental health clinicians (one social worker, one forensic nurse and one occupational therapist) and an addictions social worker. The court also has access to consulting forensic psychiatrists who provide opinions in situations where it is unclear to the court team whether a qualifying mental health disorder exists. The court is overseen by a dedicated Provincial Court judge.
The Mental Health Court Program's three clinicians, in consultation with the probation officer, complete the eligibility screening for each of the people referred to the court. The decision to accept an individual into the program is made by consensus after thoughtful, thorough, and frank discussions among the team members and the presiding judge.
The defence attorney supports and advocates on behalf of their clients and provides assistance to the team. The Crown attorney is involved in determining initial admission for screening as well as addressing ongoing issues that may affect public safety. When an individual has complex or unclear symptoms, they are referred to the East Coast Forensic Hospital where forensic psychologists and/or psychiatrists are available to provide clarification and/or consultation. This partnership is vital to assisting the team in the screening, planning, and management of individuals involved with the Court.
Mental Health Court Program
The Mental Health Court Program is not a trial court. Participants accepted into the program work with a team of professionals who help address the issues contributing to the individual coming into conflict with the law. Unlike the adversarial approach of the traditional criminal courts, this program focuses on collaboration and problem-solving to develop and administer a support plan that is unique to the needs of each individual participant.
Individuals 18 years or older with a mental disorder substantially connected to the offence they are charged with can be considered for the program. Applicants must live in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and have a substantial connection to the city, such as work or school, and their mental health supports must be within the municipal boundaries.
Participants must also acknowledge responsibility for the offences they are charged with. This allows for the case to be moved out of the traditional court system and delays sentencing for cases where a guilty pleas was entered. The participant can then work with the court team to develop and complete their individualized support plan. Accepting responsibility also shows the individual is willing and open to work toward their own wellness and success.
Finally, individuals referred to the Mental Health Court Program must undergo a screening assessment by a clinician from the court team. The final decision rests with the court team and requires the consent of the Public Prosecution Service, either provincially or federally.
Substance Use Disorder Program
The Substance Use Disorder Program is a voluntary program for people 19 years or older who live in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and have been charged with a criminal offence substantially connected to their drug or alcohol addiction. The charge(s) must also be within the jurisdiction of the Provincial Court.
Applicants must acknowledge responsibility for their actions and the Public Prosecution Service must consent to their participation in the program. To be eligible, applicants must also be participating in the Nova Scotia Health Authority's Opioid Treatment Program in Dartmouth.
A prospective participant is assessed by addictions and treatment professionals, who provide an assessment for the team's consideration. The Crown also reviews the charge(s) and decides whether to allow the individual to participate.
If accepted, the participant is expected to:
- enter a guilty plea(s)
- sign a Consent and Waiver form detailing what will be expected
- take part in addiction treatment and support sessions
- appear in court, once a week at first, and then as directed
- submit to regular urine tests
If participants fail to comply with the requirements of the Substance Use Disorder Program, the judge may impose special conditions, including more frequent court appearances, closer supervision, directed projects, probation changes, bail revocation, or termination from the Program.
Typically, participants are involved in the Substance Use Disorder Program for between 12 and 24 months. The length of time depends on the seriousness of the charges and their progress in the program. When participants complete the program, they will be sentenced and most likely will serve a period of probation. Upon completion, they can continue to treatment with the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Opioid Treatment Program.
Support for Veterans
In 2017, the Mental Health Court Program in Dartmouth announced a partnership with Veterans Affairs Canada to support veterans in Nova Scotia who, as a direct result of their occupational stress injuries, have come in conflict with the justice system.
An eligible Veteran participant is any former member of the Canadian Armed Forces (including reserve forces) or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who is 18 years of age and older. The Veteran participant must meet the eligibility criteria of the Mental Health Court Program as indicated below:
- charged with a criminal offence within the jurisdiction of the Provincial Court
- participants must acknowledge responsibility for the act or omission that forms the basis of the offence(s) they are alleged to have committed
- must have a qualifying mental health disorder/operational stress injury that is substantially connected to the commission of the offence
- must have a substantial connection to the Halifax Regional Municipality, defined as having been previously posted to, working, or attending school in the area; or residing in the Halifax Regional Municipality; and have any mental health supports persons or programs within the municipal boundaries
- must we willing to receive case management services from Veterans Affairs Canada
- must have the consent of the Crown Attorney in the Mental Health Court Program
Veteran referrals will occur through the normal Mental Health Court Program referral process and may involve either a veteran who is an existing client of Veterans Affairs Canada or, as a result of the referral to the Mental Health Court Program, will be referred to Veterans Affairs Canada for case management services.
Support for Mi'kmaq and Indigenous People
Both the Mental Health Court Program and the Substance Use Disorder Program partner with the Mi'kmaw Legal Support Network (MLSN) to ensure the cultural and other unique needs of their Indigenous participants are considered throughout the court process. The broader court team for both programs includes a dedicated Court Support Worker from MLSN who oversees this work.
Support for African Nova Scotians
Both the Mental Health Court Program and the Substance Use Disorder Program in Dartmouth partner with the Nova Scotia Brotherhood and the Nova Scotia Sisterhood to support court participants of Black African ancestry.
Historically, Black men and women have faced and endured traumatic and unfair treatment in the justice system, which has affected their trust and willingness to seek support through programming offered by the courts.
The Brotherhood and Sisterhood serve as resources to facilitate and navigate the delivery of culturally appropriate services, with a main focus on mental health and primary care. These organizations also provide psychotherapy services, psychiatry assessment, peer-to-peer support, anger management and counselling. All services take an Afrocentric approach in delivery of care.