Mental Health Litigation Practicum: Civil Commitment

Fighting for the freedom of clients who face stigma and discrimination

The Mental Health Litigation Practicum provides representation for persons allegedly living with mental illness who are facing commitment and involuntary treatment petitions. Students will receive real-world experience as civil rights advocates at a time when mental health is at the forefront of our national conversation. Students will litigate issues involving the immediate deprivation of liberty and bodily autonomy. 


Students will be assigned cases by the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) Mental Health Litigation Division (MHLD) and represent clients in civil commitment and involuntary treatment trials under the supervision of a faculty member. During their representation of clients, they will meet with their clients at local psychiatric hospitals and develop trial advocacy skills by preparing a defense and defending their clients at bench trials. In preparation for trial, students will conduct client interviews, review medical records, identify their case theory driven by the client’s story, prepare a defense, and engage expert witnesses to assist with their client’s defense. At the bench trials, held in-person at hospitals and courthouses or remotely, students zealously represent their clients: they will litigate motions, cross-examine the hospital’s witnesses, direct-examine defense witnesses, and argue in closing that the hospital failed to meet their burden beyond a reasonable doubt. Students may also be provided the opportunity to second-chair their classmates’ cases.


Students attend a weekly 2-hour seminar to learn mental health law and the mental health litigation practice. Through reading assignments and class discussions, students will develop a thorough understanding of the rules of evidence, the Mental Health Statute, and the case law that governs civil commitments and involuntary treatment. Students will also explore the ethical implications of forced hospitalization and treatment, and learn how race, economic status and difference in identity, experience, and values can impact entry into the mental health system, diagnosis, treatment, and access to less restrictive alternatives.


In this two- or three-credit practicum, each student will have the unique opportunity of defending clients being held involuntarily at local psychiatric hospitals. Students have the opportunity to enroll for one semester or as a full year course (two semesters in same academic year). Pre/co-requisite: Evidence and a trial advocacy course. Trial advocacy pre/co-requisite will be waived for students enrolled in both fall and spring semesters.