May is mental health awareness month. This is an appropriate moment to reflect on Osgoode Hall Law School’s engagement in issues of mental health, law & justice.
Much of what we focus on in legal education involves the aspects of the justice system we see. We see judges and lawyers and witnesses and parties to litigation or the accused in a criminal trial. We see the arguments, decisions and consequences that define the justice system. Increasingly, however, we are turning our focus to the parts of the justice system which go unseen. Mental illness and cognitive disabilities fall into this category.
The statistics are chilling. One in five Canadians suffer or will suffer the effects of a mental illness, which means it is rare to find a family in this country that is not touched in some way by the devastating effects of mental illness. For Canadians 18-25, suicide has become the second most common cause of death. Whatever your income or education, wherever you live, mental illness does not discriminate. Those who live with mental illness, however, encounter stigma and discrimination at every turn. Too often, their journey lands them in the justice system, whether as a victim or accused in the criminal justice system, or through civil committals, consent and capacity proceedings, the cascading consequences of loss of work or housing, family breakdown, or in the host of other legal networks in which those who need health or social benefits find themselves enmeshed.
In June, 2011, Osgoode and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health co-sponsored a “Catalytic Conversation” about Forensic Mental Health, featuring Janet Leiper, the former Chair of Legal Aid Ontario and former Director of Osgoode’s Public Interest Program, Sandy Simpson, CAMH’s Director of the Mental Health and Justice Program and Justice Richard Schneider, who has pioneered Ontario’s first Mental Health Court. By the end of that conversation, it became clear that law is part of the problem, not the solution, when it comes to mental health and criminal justice.
A similar point was made by Osgoode alumna and criminal defense lawyer Marlys Edwardh, when she accepted an Honourary Doctorate as part of Osgoode’s June 2010 Convocation. Edwardh’s successful advocacy in the case of Paul Conway before the Supreme Court of Canada exemplifies her search for the just treatment of those with mental illness caught up in the justice system. Edwardh challenged Osgoode to take a leadership role among law schools in raising awareness, creating innovative research and teaching programs in the area of mental health and justice and pursuing law reform.
What should a law school do to address these dynamics? Osgoode is in the midst of providing concrete answers to this question.
Marian MacGregor, the Director of Community and Legal Aid Services Program (CLASP), received the prestigious Law Foundation of Ontario Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship for 2011-2012. She is working with ARCH Disability Law Centre to develop an intensive program in Disability law. The program is expected to include a placement at ARCH and non-governmental organizations. The participating students will gain a greater sense of social justice and, it is hoped, be more likely to take on disability cases when they become lawyers.
CAMH has agreed to partner with Osgoode to pursue new research collaborations which will involve Osgoode students tackling some of the most vexing legal issues associated with mental health and justice.
This summer, Osgoode is sponsoring a CAMH summer student, and also a summer student in the new Administrative Justice Support Network, which will facilitate access to legal information and resources for individuals and families in disability related disputes with administrative tribunals such as the Social Benefits Tribunal.
Finally, spurred by Osgoode alumni David Lepofsky and Karen Weiler and others who have played leadership roles on the Ontario Courts Accessibility Committee – now Chaired by Osgoode Alumni Board member Susan Lang – Osgoode will be developing new curricular materials in the area of cognitive and physical accessibility to be made available to all Canadian law schools. This initiative builds on Osgoode Professional Development’s annual National Symposium on Mental Health Law, which brings together academics, lawyers, social workers, law enforcement, and mental health professionals to explore solutions to complex legal problems.
Still to come are interdisciplinary initiatives on mental health, disability and justice building involving Osgoode and other partners at York University, community projects led by Parkdale Community Legal Services and collaborations with NGOs such as RISE Asset Management dedicated to microfinancing and mentorship for those living with mental illness and addiction.
We also recognize that our commitment to mental health has to start at home – with how the law school supports the mental health of our students, staff and faculty. This point was highlighted in the compelling submission by an anonymous student to the “Dean for a Day” contest at Osgoode in the Spring. We are already acting on the call to do more, and by the summer of 2012 will add a new Counsellor position to our Admissions and Student Services Office. And more resources and services will be announced soon.
Osgoode is committed to making mental health, disability and justice a comprehensive priority in the coming years. In this endeavour, we hope to make a concrete reality of our aspirational motto, “Through Law to Justice.”