Ruling on legal challenges on behalf of mentally ill

Legal challenges on behalf of mentally disturbed people being detained in hospital — and who are unable to give instructions to lawyers — should only be brought where there has been a gross abuse of power or failure of fundamental requirements in relation to their liberty, the Court of Appeal has said.

The court was echoing previous comments made by High and Supreme Court judges in dismissing an application seeking the release of a mentally ill man who stabbed a fellow patient in the neck with a knife at a Dublin hospital in May 2010.

The injury left the man paralysed below the neck and he died eight months later. The attacker was initially charged with assault causing serious harm and, after the death, with murder.

He was initially jailed but soon transferred to the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) because he was suffering from treatment resistant paranoid schizophrenia. A court found him unfit to be tried . The DPP later served a book of evidence and the man’s lawyers brought a challenge to the legality of his detention.

The High Court found his detention was not in accordance with law but the DPP then applied to have him kept in the CMH pending determination of further proceedings over his detention.

In February last, the High Court’s Mr Justice Paul Butler found there was a reasonable doubt as to whether he committed murder and discharged him on that count. However, he said there was no similar doubt over the assault charge and refused to discharge him on that. He continued to be detained in the CMH where a review board regularly reviewed his status and found his detention was justified.

His lawyers then brought a further challenge arguing that, as he had been discharged on the count of murder, the original order authorising his detention thereby became spent and therefore unlawful. The DPP argued the original committal order endures until such time as the review board decides he is fit to be tried.

Mr Justice Seamus Noonan said even if the challenge to his detention was to succeed, he will remain in the CMH by virtue of further applications having to be made by the DPP. He echoed words from a 2009 Supreme Court decision, in another case, that the challenge to detention was “initiated and maintained on purely technical and unmeritorious grounds.” It was difficult to see in what way the challenge advanced the interests of a person who patently is in need of psychiatric care, the Supreme Court stated.

While a person in such detention is entitled to legal representation, it should “not give rise to an assumption” that a legal challenge is warranted unless it is in the best interests of the patient, the court said. It said “mere technical defects” related to the detention “should not give rise to a rush to court” particularly where such defects can or have been cured. Only where there is a gross abuse of power of fundamental requirements would a defect in an earlier period of detention justify release, the court said.

Mr Justice Noonan said these remarks applied in the case and said there was an onus on those representing someone suffering from a mental disabilityto satisfy themselves his best interests are served before going to court to seek release. That decision was appealed to the Court of Appeal which upheld Mr Justice Noonan’s judgment in its entirety.


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