The Impact of Contributing the Client Voice North of the Border : 20 years of Unprecedented Intervention by Psych Survivors in Precedent Setting Cases in Canada’s Top Court )

Anita Szigeti, J.D. and Jennifer Chambers

No psychiatric survivor advocacy organization was granted standing in the Supreme Court of Canada until 1999. The Queen Street Patients Council which became the Empowerment Council (“EC”) Systemic Advocates in Addictions and Mental Health - a peer advocacy organization - began then to seek intervener status (filing “amicus briefs” and making oral argument) in Canada’s top Court. Since then, the voices of survivors have been heard and considered, through the position taken by the EC, an advocacy organization made up completely of individuals with lived experience of mental health or addiction issues. In the last 20 years, the EC has intervened in more than 10 cases in the Supreme Court of Canada. During a brief period of time between Councils, Jennifer Chambers and the late Randy Pritchard founded the Mental Health Legal Advocacy Coalition, which also intervened in some cases before the SCC. The EC’s submissions have been cited in the Court’s Judgments. It is now a trusted intervener contributing the perspective of clients with mental health and addiction issues in precedent setting cases. It has gained not only the trust but also the respect of the Supreme Court of Canada, levelling the playing field against many government agencies and State actors who often oppose our intervention or positions.

In this workshop, we will cover the most important cases decided by and currently before the SCC where the EC has intervened and explain the positions advanced on the issues before the Court. These include: Capacity to consent to psychiatric treatment, treatment over objection laws, the legal test for dangerousness to keep forensic psychiatric detainees who are NGRI detained, the requirement for least restrictive conditions of detention, constitutional law jurisdiction of administrative tribunals monitoring the situation and progress of NGRI detainees, exemption of NGRI offenders from Sex Offender Registries, the availability of non-insane automatism defence to those whose criminality results from self-induced intoxication and what legal test should be applied to be granted public interest litigant standing on behalf of a vulnerable group, such as people with psychiatric histories. The workshop will give attendees a solid overview of the current legal landscape of the rights of our clients in Canada.

From the perspective of the peer advocacy group, it is important to establish principles, and the goals that stem from them, in order to instruct counsel and provide parameters within which counsel can advise on the best course of legal action. People living with the experience also have goals that can be less obvious to counsel, such as the need to get help that they know will actually assist, rather than mere compliance or noncompliance with what is offered. At times the work involves defending people who are minorities even within that larger group of people on the receiving end of mental health services, such as people on the sex offender registry, or people who are First Nations and not able to access Indigenous healing opportunities. The Council must be in a constant state of learning and values clarification in order to bring to the Court the best possible insight and interpretations.