Over €1bn in cash, property, and other assets is being controlled by the High Court for people deemed incapable of managing their own affairs.
Human rights experts are seeking urgent changes to the system which also deprives people of any say in how they live their lives.
A report into the wards of court system — which currently governs the affairs of 2,639 people with combined assets worth €1.27bn — describes it as archaic, inadequate, and in breach of European human rights legislation.
The report, commissioned by the National Safeguarding Committee (NSC), says people being made wards of court are not heard during the High Court application to establish their wardship and are not given access to the medical reports on which their wardship is based.
They have no say in where or how they live, are not consulted on what medical procedures they should undergo, and can not give a view on the disposal of their property even where they are capable of expressing an opinion.
People are sometimes made wards of court simply so that their funds can be accessed for the Fair Deal nursing home scheme but end up losing control over even the smallest aspects of their daily life as a result.
“The current system focuses on the defects of people, not their capacity,” said solicitor Patricia Rickard-Clarke, chairwoman of the NSC, who said it dates from the 1871 Lunacy Act and has “no place in the 21st century”.
She said the system does not provide advocates for people to protect against conflicts of interest which were common when applications for wardship were prompted by family members.
The system is due to end as part of the new Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015, but the Act is not yet in use because it has far-reaching implications for the rights of vulnerable people and a whole new state agency, the Decision Support Service (DSS), is being set up to oversee its implementation.
When rolled out, the act will require the presumption that everyone has the right and ability to make decisions for themselves, and much more structured and thorough efforts — with independent regulation and oversight from the DSS — will have to be made to establish a vulnerable person’s will and preference in relation to all the different decisions that need to be made in relation to their needs.
Ms Rickard-Clarke said implementation of the Act is eagerly awaited but called for the spirit of the new legislation to be applied in the wards of court system until it is disbanded.
President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, who attended the launch of the report, said he has already begun changing procedures in the past year so that, at the very least, wards of court are visited and their situations reviewed more regularly, but he said he will examine the recommendations and see what more could be done.
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