HALIFAX – The Crown has decided to drop all charges against Nichele Benn, a Nova Scotia woman with intellectual disabilities.
Benn had been facing charges of mischief and assault stemming from incidents that took place at Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville, N.S. She had previously pleaded not guilty to the assault charge and had not yet pleaded to the mischief charge.
“It’s been a long go. We’ve been battling in and out of courtrooms, criminal records for Nichele up to today,” said Benn’s mother Brenda Hardiman following the brief court proceeding in Dartmouth on Thursday.
“We’re extremely happy with how things turned out.”
Hardiman said Nichele moved out of Quest and into a small options home at the end of December, where she is thriving. She has told her daughter that the charges will be dropped.
“She’s extremely happy and relieved but doesn’t understand fully the gravity of how it impacts her life,” Hardiman said.
“She’s not going to end up in jail and if the results today didn’t come out the way they did, there was no doubt in my mind, she would be following the footsteps of Ashley Smith in our justice system.”
Defence lawyer Jane O’Neill said Benn does not have any outstanding charges.
“Nichele is free of the criminal justice system at this stage,” she said.
Why the charges were dropped
Crown attorney Alex Keaveny said it was not in the public interest to continue with prosecution.
“It was really about the position of the witnesses and also, but mostly, the events outside of court that had to do with whether the risk factors that led to the charges had been addressed. And they had been,” Keaveny said.
The Crown and the defence had been in discussions for several months before Keaveny decided not to proceed with the case.
“I’ve been in discussion with Crown counsel Alex Keaveny, who very thoroughly looked at the situation, followed up on Nichele’s progress and rightfully made the decision that he would exercise his discretion not to proceed with the charges and we thank him for that,” O’Neill said.
“It’s a very reasonable and rational decision.”
Keaveny said the decision to drop charges happens often and is not “unusual.”
“While there are certainly some unique aspects of this matter, there were also many of the facts that I considered are very typical, as to the passage of time and whether or not any outside actions outside of court had addressed what the concerns really are founded on.”
People First Nova Scotia applauds decision
Members of People First Nova Scotia, an organization that advocates for people with intellectual disabilities, were present at the Dartmouth courthouse when the charges were dropped.
“I’m really happy the Crown decided to drop all the charges,” said Dave Kent, who has intellectual disabilities.
“People with special needs shouldn’t be charged anyway because they don’t know what’s taking place and it shouldn’t be allowed at all.”
“The justice system is not designed to handle these kinds of situations. It’s not a criminal issue,” said Cindy Carruthers, executive director of People First Nova Scotia.
Hardiman hopes Nichele’s story inspires others who may be facing similar situations.
Minister Bernard responds
Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard said each service provider is responsible for its own health and safety regulations, which includes when it is appropriate to call police. Hardiman and People First Nova Scotia have spoken out about how police should not be called to respond to situations like Benn’s.
She said there are no plans for the government to wade into how those regulations are decided.
“I would not want to be a service provider that was told by a government department what was appropriate in terms of my staff, who felt they had been assaulted, on calling the police,” she said.
“Workers have rights to be safe. The individuals involved in these facilities have the right to be safe as well.”