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A B.C. woman involuntarily detained for mental-health reasons has filed a constitutional challenge in B.C. Supreme Court, arguing that she has a right to a government-funded lawyer at a coming review of her detention.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

A B.C. woman involuntarily detained for mental-health reasons has filed a constitutional challenge in B.C. Supreme Court, arguing that she has a right to a government-funded lawyer at a coming review of her detention.

The 39-year-old woman, who can only be identified as Z.B. because of a publication ban, has been involuntarily committed in hospital since July, when she sought help for experiencing suicidal thoughts. Her pro bono lawyers, representing her in the constitutional challenge, say that she is unhappy with the involuntary detention, is overwhelmed by the process and needs legal help articulating her points at a forthcoming review hearing.

"She just feels that she can't do that, and understandably so," said Mark Underhill, a partner a Underhill Gage Litigation and lead counsel for Z.B.

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"It's really more about having a fair hearing than what happens at the end of the hearing; it's about the process, not the outcome. That's really the core legal principle at issue here: When you're detained by the state, one of the principles of fundamental justice under Section 7 of the Charter is that you've got a right to a fair hearing."

Kate Feeney, a staff lawyer at the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre and co-counsel for the woman, added that in addition to having mental-health issues, people in Z.B.'s position are often stigmatized, otherwise vulnerable and often forcibly medicated with drugs that can affect their cognitive abilities.

Under B.C.'s Mental Health Act, a police officer can apprehend a person and take him or her to hospital if the officer believes that person has a mental illness and could be a safety risk to that person or others. A physician can then authorize involuntary admission if that person is deemed to have a mental disorder; requires treatment, care, supervision or control in a designated facility; and cannot be suitably admitted as a voluntary patient.

Z.B., who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety in her 20s, has tried various mental-health treatments, according to a petition filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Friday. She says it is very important to her to make her own decisions about medical treatments.

In July, Z.B. was at a coffee shop in Nanaimo and began having suicidal thoughts, according to the petition. She asked a staff member to call police, who responded and took her to hospital. Z.B. spent a few nights in the psychiatric ward and was expecting further voluntary help, but was surprised and upset to learn she had been involuntarily committed, according to the petition.

"She does not agree with her involuntary admission because she went to the hospital to get help and she was not hurting anyone," the petition reads.

Z.B., who is unemployed, homeless and receives about $500 per month from disability, according to the petition, is seeking an interlocutory order for the province to provide her with a state-funded lawyer for her Aug. 23 hearing.

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Mr. Underhill said the matter could be remedied at a cost of less than $1-million a year by enhancing the services of the Community Legal Assistance Society, which has a robust network of lawyers and advocates and is funded in part by the Legal Services Society of B.C.

"It would have to be properly planned, but this is not a big ask in the grand scheme of things," he said. "It would be embarrassing if we end up in court because of this – which would ultimately be more expensive."

Reached for comment on Sunday, Ministry of Justice spokeswoman Kate Trotter provided a statement saying the province has not been made aware of possible legal action and cannot comment at this time.

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