Heather Campbell Pope has dedicated the last four years to pushing toward law reform in the hope of ensuring that those with dementia in contact with the criminal justice system are taken care of, regardless of what they may have done. “It is extremely important that people who are facing criminal charges receive a fair trial,” says Campbell Pope. “[Advocating for people living with dementia] also means advocating for the rights of people when they’ve done terrible things.”
Campbell Pope’s work as founder of Dementia Justice Canada focuses on the time after arrest and before conviction — a period during which people living with dementia can languish indefinitely due to questions around their fitness to stand trial.
Campbell Pope explains that these individuals often fall under a model built for acute mental illness. The expectation is that cognition will get better ahead of trial, which is often the opposite case for those progressing through dementia. This can lead to years spent in facilities unfit to meet their needs. And a lack of guidance means that people interacting with individuals living with dementia, from police officers to care workers, can feel lost when it comes to handling such situations.
“The justice system is not equipped to really handle these cases with the finesse and compassion that’s needed when it’s an elderly person with dementia,” she says.
Working with older adults has long been central to Campbell Pope’s career. A former lawyer, Campbell Pope articled for the Canadian Centre for Elder Law before establishing her own practice in British Columbia. She also spent time working with the BC Centre for Elder Advocacy and Support (now Seniors First BC) and the BC Ministry of Health’s Seniors Action Plan team, as well as BC’s leading long-term care industry association.
With her legal background and industry experience, Campbell Pope noticed critical shortcomings in providing justice for those living with dementia.
“I noticed a glaring gap in the law reform and policy discussion — and to some degree, in media coverage as well — about these cases that were sometimes fatal, where we heard the aggressor was arrested and perhaps even charged with a very serious offence. But then what happened to them?” says Campbell Pope, again noting that many fell into facilities unable to properly house them.
“I wanted to bring some centralized focus to these issues — to see where the system could improve in how they manage these tragedies.”