Ruling in favour of mentally ill woman

THE High Court has ruled that a woman with a long history of mental illness was being detained unlawfully because of a flaw in the forms used by psychiatrists to renew a patient’s period of detention.

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, successful challenged the legality of a renewal order for her detention made under Section 15 of the Mental Health Act 2001. However, Mr Justice Bryan McMahon said he was not prepared to order the immediate release of the woman from detention at a Dublin psychiatric hospital because of the present state of her health.

The case prompted the Minister for Health, Mary Harney, to introduce emergency legislation which was passed on Thursday. The Government’s legal advisers had recommended the measure as they correctly predicted the outcome of the challenge would mean that more than 200 other patients being held in involuntary detention would be entitled to their freedom.

As a consequence, the Mental Health Act 2008 provides that no period of admission will be deemed invalid, irrespective of which forms are used by psychiatrists.

Yesterday, Mr Justice McMahon put a four-week stay on an order for the woman’s release to allow the authorities to decide on appropriate treatment for her.

During a hearing earlier this week, the judge was informed that the woman’s psychiatrist had recommended that she should ideally be discharged from St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital into secure, supported accommodation as she required ongoing medication. However, she has remained in St Patrick’s because no suitable facility had been made available by the HSE over the past 10 months.

“The sad fact of this case is that our provision for the mentally ill is so lacking,” said the woman’s solicitor, John Neville.

In his judgment, Mr Justice McMahon said the problem relating to the woman’s detention was based in the wording of the form used by the Mental Health Commission to be completed by the psychiatrist in order to comply with their obligations under the Mental Health Act 2001.

The judge admitted he was “troubled” by the apparent lack of certainty in such renewal orders, as psychiatrists were authorised to make them “for a period not exceeding 12 months” without fixing any more definite timeframe.

The judge also observed that his ruling did not mean that “skies will fall”. He stressed his decision did not prevent psychiatrists from making 12-month detention orders if such a period was considered appropriate.

Mental Health Ireland, a voluntary group promoting positive mental health, praised the Government for acting wisely in introducing legislation to avoid a potentially very serious matter with implications for people in involuntary detention.

However, independent South MEP, Kathy Sinnott, last night described the legislation as “a breach of human rights”. Ms Sinnott said she was outraged that the Government in closing a legal loophole had acted in what she claimed was blatant disregard of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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