Opinion: Tackling dementia and access to justice in B.C.

Opinion: They are being criminalized for the symptoms of their condition and that's where I want to come in, says legal advocate

Vancouver Sun 5 minute read July 8, 2021

Heather Campbell Pope, founder of Dementia Justice Canada, has been approved under a new Law Society of B.C. program to provide legal help to those suffering with the disorder and their families. jpg

Heather Campbell Pope, founder of Dementia Justice Canada, has been approved under a new Law Society of B.C. program to provide legal help to those suffering with the disorder and their families.

Through phone consultations and emails from southern Ontario, Campbell Pope will offer guidance, advocacy support and research to assist unrepresented individuals with dementia and others to navigate the courts and legal proceedings.

She will be able to advocate via letters to the Crown, correctional authorities, care homes and health authorities, or custodians of health information, regarding access to records.

The legal regulator has also authorized the non-practising lawyer to carry out legal research, write memos, prepare documents for human rights complaints, draft appeal proposals and apply for compassionate release.

“What I hope to do in criminal cases is bring to the forefront the unique circumstances of dealing with an accused diagnosed with dementia,” she explained. “Until now, the best I could do, since I was not able to offer legal advice, was to provide families with general resources or refer them on to another organization. But I always felt there was more I can do. This is a chance finally for me to put my professional knowledge to use.”

Late last year the society unveiled an “innovation sandbox” — a program to expand access to legal services addressing areas of unmet legal need by granting exemptions to the Legal Profession Act, the Law Society Rules or the Code of Professional Conduct.

Campbell Pope’s proposal was one of the first handful recently approved.

The others are: Willful — a digital platform to create wills and powers of attorney; SimpleArb — a digital tool that allows parties to enter into settlement negotiations to resolve their dispute; Tellalawyer — an online referral service that offers a direct link to qualified legal professionals for an initial consultation; an online platform that creates cohabitation, pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements; and an individual offering legal coaching, document preparation and assistance with case law research of appropriate damages for claims.

The sandbox is a remarkably progressive concept that, if successful, could see retail legal services eventually being offered in London Drugs or Walmart the same as glasses, insurance or hamburgers.

A decade ago, Campbell Pope moved to Vancouver to article with the Canadian Centre for Elder Law and the issues around dementia piqued her passion.

“It’s a legal minefield,” she said. “It depends so much on the kind of dementia a person has.”

After moving back to her home province, Campbell Pope founded Dementia Justice Canada in 2017.

There are about 70,000 who have the disorder in B.C., she said, emphasizing that very few of them will be arrested or charged but when they are, “the consequences for that person, and for that family can be drastic and devastating.”

In 2013, for instance, a 95-year-old Vernon man was charged with killing his 85-year-old roommate in a long-term care facility after a squabble.

He was found unfit to stand trial.

“The most common offences are on the lower end,” Campbell Pope stressed, “minor theft, shoplifting or behaviours that are sexually or socially inappropriate, public urination, indecent exposure or inappropriate touching in a public setting or aggression against someone in a care home. They are being criminalized for the symptoms of their condition and that’s where I want to come in.”

She hopes to help the system deal with these accused appropriately: “It’s a really tough situation from a mens rea and a not criminally responsible point of view because they are hitting all the thresholds or not hitting the thresholds, and they fall into this grey zone of responsibility … The defence of diminished responsibility tries to account for these situations … that mental illness somehow contributed to their behaviour and they should be found less-culpable because of that.”

Still, those with dementia can end up in prison, Campbell Pope noted, and they together with those who develop the disorder inside also might benefit from her help.

“Groups that help older adults usually don’t offer services for people accused of crimes, so I’ll be letting them know I’m available to give them support,” she said — and reaching out to the bar.

“My services are complementary to those of defence lawyers — I can answer their dementia questions and help them look at the dementia elements of the offence or some defences that may be available to that person. But a big issue is fitness to stand trial and the consequences for an adult with dementia … they can end up languishing in a dementia ward for months if not years.”

While she considers she is operating a “social enterprise” — profit is not her primary motive — it’s a business and she plans to charge $50 for the first hour of consultation.

After that, it will depend on the scope and complexity of the work, for which she will bill a flat fee “much lower than a lawyer will charge.”

She has aspirations to take her service national — there are about 750,000 suffering from the disorder across the country — but she’ll have to see how it works out.

The law society requires regular reports from those in the sandbox to monitor their progress.

“One of our biggest needs is around consumer issues and employment,” said Jason Kuzminski, a law society spokesman. “Those are key areas of need. You haven’t seen (proposals approved) in those areas yet, but I think you will down the road.”




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