11/05/2014 12:36 EST | Updated 01/05/2015 05:59 EST

Nova Scotia says mental health court a success, five years after it was set up

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's mental health court is achieving its objectives five years after it was established amid pointed criticism of how the province dealt with mentally ill offenders, the justice minister said Wednesday.

Lena Metlege Diab released a 20-page report that says of the 232 adults deemed eligible to use the court between 2009 and 2013, 86 per cent had successfully completed the voluntary diversion program.

"Any time you can help an individual that has a mental disorder and also facing conflict with the law is a success," the minister told a news conference at the specially designated courtroom. "Helping 199 is definitely a success."

When the court was established in November 2009, the province found itself in the middle of a public inquiry into the 2007 death of Howard Hyde, a mentally ill man who died in a holding cell 30 hours after he was Tasered by police.

The inquiry found Hyde's death was caused by a struggle with jail guards, but it also concluded that parts of the health-care, judicial and correctional systems failed to properly deal with Hyde's mental illness, which was schizophrenia.

The mental health court's presiding judge, Pam Williams, said the court is working well.

"It is a prime example of how collaboration, co-operation and creativity have produced great results for persons with mental health difficulties who find themselves in conflict with the criminal justice system," she said.

"It increases their well-being and it also has reduced their likelihood of reoffending."

Mental health courts first appeared in Canada in the late 1990s. They are for people with mental disorders who come into conflict with the law as a result of their mental challenges.

In Nova Scotia, the program can be offered to people who have been charged with a criminal offence handled by the provincial court, but only if the accused has a serious mental disorder that is linked to the offence.

A diagnosis for a mental illness can be made through a screening process after a referral from the regular court system. The accused must also agree to take part in the program, admit responsibility for their actions and receive Crown consent to take part.

Unlike the adversarial approach taken in the regular court system, the mental health court focuses on collaboration and problem solving.

Stephen Ayer, executive director of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, said the court offers a "wrap-around" approach that enables many participants to be discharged without a criminal record.

"It's addressing the underlying issue that's causing the individual to come into conflict with the law," he said. "By doing that ... they won't reoffend."

If participants fail to follow their monitored support program, they can be returned to the regular court system.

The minister said the report does not constitute a formal evaluation. A more comprehensive study is expected by early next year.

Still, the report offers a snapshot of how the court works, noting that 67 per cent of participants were men and the most common diagnosis for them was schizophrenia. For the female participants, bipolar disorder and major depression were the most common disorders.

The court also dealt with people with a variety of other disorders, including those affecting anxiety, eating, moods, sexual behaviour, impulse control and cognition. As well, more than 50 per cent of participants struggled with substance abuse.

The participants faced a range of charges, from mischief and theft to more serious charges involving assaults, weapons and threats.

The mental health court team won't admit someone into the program unless the team agrees that the risk to the public can be managed in the community.

In some cases, the Crown has withdrawn charges after a participant has completed or partially completed the program.