Mental health body rejects ethnic discrimination claim

Commission expresses ‘sincere regret’ over failure to allow solicitor represent patient at hearing

Ashimedua Okonkwo said she was asked by the Mental Health Commission tribunal if she was qualified to practice in Ireland and told she was not allowed to represent the woman in the case. Photograph: Collins Courts

Ashimedua Okonkwo said she was asked by the Mental Health Commission tribunal if she was qualified to practice in Ireland and told she was not allowed to represent the woman in the case. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

A tribunal of the Mental Health Commission has rejected claims by a solicitor it made remarks discriminatory of her when she was attempting to represent a patient before it.

The tribunal accepted the patient was entitled to be represented by a solicitor not on the panel of solicitors maintained by the Commission and its failure to permit that had rendered her detention as an involuntary patient unlawful.

Solicitor Ashimedua Okonkwo, who had attempted to represent a woman detained as an involuntary patient at a hospital under the Mental Health Act, had claimed she was not allowed by the tribunal to represent the woman at the hearing. The patient, who opposed her detention, did not want to be represented by another solicitor and she and her family left the tribunal hearing before it concluded.

In her absence, the tribunal decided the woman should remain an involuntary patient at the hospital for another six months. As a result, her lawyers went to the High Court last Friday seeking an inquiry under Article 40 of the constitution into the legality of her continued detention.

During that ex parte application (one side only represented), an affidavit from Ms Okonwo complaining about how she was treated before the tribunal was provided to the court.

When the case returned before Mr Justice Seamus Noonan on Monday, Feichin McDonagh SC, for the woman, said the inquiry was not being challenged. It had been agreed an order directing the woman’s release could be made but a stay would be applied to that so discussions about the woman’s ongoing care could be held between the sides.

In a statement read on behalf of the tribunal by Donal McGuinness SC, with Mairead McKenna BL, it was stated the tribunal accepted that “a patient is entitled to separately retain a solicitor who is not on the panel of solicitors maintained by the Commission”. The patient was denied this opportunity, therefore the case is conceded as her current detention is not in accordance with the law, counsel said.

“We sincerely regret that this issue arose,” the statement said.

The statement added there was some media attention to the matter which referred to Ms Okonkwo stating she considered certain of the tribunal’s questions as discriminatory.

“These queries had nothing to do with her ethnicity or gender and the suggestion to that effect is strenuously objected to by all three members of the tribunal who also have the right to the protection of their good name,” the statement said.

Counsel said if a sworn statement on this issue was necessary, the tribunal would more than happy to submit it. Ms Okonkwo, based in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, had said in a sworn statement that the woman’s family wanted her to represent the woman at the tribunal.

The woman had had another solicitor previously assigned by the Commission to represent her and Ms Okonwo said she formally notified the Commission she was now representing the woman. When she attended at a sitting of the tribunal last week to review the woman’s case, Ms Okonkwo said the previous solicitor was also present. Ms Okonkwo claimed she was asked by the tribunal if she was qualified to practice in Ireland and if she knew about the Mental Health Acts and was not allowed to represent the woman by the tribunal.

She said she found the remarks disturbing and considered them discriminatory given she was a woman and a black African.

Ms 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. She claimed she was asked to be quiet and was permitted sit at the back of the room but was not allowed to speak, take notes or make a recording.