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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019
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Solicitor tells High Court she was discriminated against because she is 'a woman and a black African'

The solicitor was asked about her qualifications and training while representing a patient at a Mental Health tribunal.

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A SOLICITOR HAS claimed before the High Court that she was subjected to discriminatory remarks because she is “a woman and a black African” when attempting to represent a client at a Tribunal of the Mental Health Commission.

The Tribunal was considering the continued detention under the Mental Health Act of a woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, as an involuntary patient at a hospital.

Lawyers for the woman have claimed that she and her family’s desire to be represented at the Tribunal by the solicitor chosen by them was refused by the Tribunal’s chairman.

The patient, it is claimed, rather than have another lawyer represent her at the hearing declined to participate and left the room where the Tribunal was being conducted.

The tribunal decided the woman, who wishes to return home to her family, should remain as an involuntary patient for a further six months.

However, her lawyers claim the manner in which the tribunal handled, where remarks were allegedly made to her solicitor Ashimedua Okonkwo which she found disturbing and discriminatory, the matter renders the woman’s detention unlawful.

The details

The case came before the High Court today when Ms Justice Caroline Costello directed that an inquiry under Article 40 of the Constitution into the legality of the woman’s detention at the hospital take place.

Feichin McDonagh SC for the woman said the manner in which the Tribunal arrived at its decision to continue to keep the woman as an involuntary patient was done in the absence of fair procedures which rendered her detention unlawful.

The application for an inquiry was made on an ex-parte basis and was adjourned to next week’s sitting of the Court.

In a sworn statement solicitor Okonkwo said she agreed to represent the woman in September.

Okonkwo, who is based in Balbriggan in Co Dublin, said the woman’s family wanted her to represent her at a Mental Health Commission Tribunal, which periodically reviews decisions to make persons involuntary patients.

The woman had another solicitor previously assigned to represent her by the Commission.

Okonkwo said she made arrangements with and collected her client’s file from the other solicitor.

Okonkwo, who took instructions from the woman, said she also formally notified the Mental Health Commission that she was now representing the woman.

Earlier this week Okonkwo attended at a Tribunal to review the woman’s case. Okonkwo said the woman’s previous solicitor was also present at the meeting.

She told the chairman of the tribunal, Eamonn Walsh BL, that she was representing the woman, who did not want to be represented by the previous solicitor.

Okonkwo claims the woman was told she did not have the right to choose her own legal representative and that the tribunal had a right to do what it appeared to be reasonable and just.

Okonkwo said she was asked by Walsh if she was qualified to practice in Ireland, and if she knew about the Mental Health Acts, and that those solicitors engaged by the Commission to act for patients were “very highly trained” in the Mental Health Act.

She said, “I found Mr Walsh’s remarks to be disturbing and I also say that I considered his remarks to be discriminatory given I am a woman and a black African,” adding that she wondered if Walsh “questioned all legal representatives appearing before a tribunal” as to their standing in this jurisdiction.

Okonkwo said she was admitted to practice as a solicitor in Ireland in 2013, holds a Masters Degree in Law from TCD, and is about to receive a Doctorate in law from the same university.

After the previous solicitor was imposed on the woman as her legal representative Okonkwo protested on behalf of her client.

She claims she was asked to be quiet and was permitted to sit at the back of the room where the tribunal was being conducted but was not allowed to speak, take notes or make a recording.

Okonkwo said her client left the room stating that she was denied the right to have her chosen lawyer represent her and did not want to be represented by the previous solicitor.

Okonkwo said the Tribunal went on to consider the woman’s situation in her absence.

Decision

The tribunal found that the woman’s detention should continue for another six months and found the woman suffers from schizophrenia.

Okonkwo said the finding was new and is not supported by any medical evidence, as according to the woman’s medical records there has never been a diagnosis of such a condition.

The woman, who says she is not a risk to anyone, and her family want her to be allowed come home and remain as an outpatient at the hospital.

The Mental Health Commission has released a statement this evening:

The Mental Health Commission does not comment on individual cases. However, we recognise that a patient is entitled to select a legal representative of their choosing to represent them.

“Furthermore, neither the Commission nor any of its Mental Health Tribunals would discriminate on grounds of race or ethnicity.”

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About the author:

Aodhan O Faolain

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