A solicitor has claimed she was subjected to discriminatory remarks because she is "a woman and a black African" when she sought to represent a client at a Mental Health Commission Tribunal.
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 the woman and her family’s desire to be represented at the Tribunal by a solicitor chosen by them was refused by the tribunal’s chairman.
Rather than have another lawyer represent her at the hearing, the woman and her family declined to participate and left the room.
The tribunal decided the woman, who wishes to return home to her family, should remain as an involuntary patient for a further six months.
Her lawyers claim the manner in which the tribunal handled the matter render the woman’s detention unlawful.
It is claimed remarks were made to her solicitor, Ashimedua Okonkwo, which the solicitor found disturbing and discriminatory.
The case came ex parte (one side only represented) before the High Court on Friday when Ms Justice Caroline Costello directed an inquiry should be held under Article 40 of the Constitution into the legality of the woman's detention at the hospital. The matter was adjourned to next week.
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.
In a sworn statement, Ms Okonkwo said she agreed to represent the woman in September.
Based in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, the solicitor said the woman’s family wanted her to represent her at the tribunal, which periodically reviews decisions to make persons involuntary patients.
The woman had had another solicitor previously assigned to represent her by the Commission.
Ms Okonkwo said she had made arrangements with, and collected her client’s file, from the other solicitor.
Ms Okonkwo, who took instructions from the woman, said she also formally notified the Commission she was now representing the woman.
Earlier this week, when she attended at a tribunal to review the woman’s case, Ms Okonkwo said the woman’s previous solicitor was also present.
She said she told the chairman of the tribunal, Eamonn Walsh BL, she was representing the woman, who did not want to be represented by the previous solicitor.
She claims the chairman said the woman did not have the right to choose her own legal representative and the tribunal had a right to do what it appeared to be reasonable and just.
Ms Okonkwo said she was asked by Mr Walsh if she was qualified to practice in Ireland, and if she knew about the Mental Health Acts. She said he had said 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.”
She wondered if Mr Walsh “questioned all legal representatives appearing before a tribunal” as to their standing in this jurisdiction.
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.
After the previous solicitor was imposed on the woman as her legal representative, Ms Okonkwo said she 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 while the tribunal was being conducted but was not allowed to speak, take notes or make a recording.
Ms Okonkwo said her client left the room stating she was denied the right to have her chosen lawyer represent her and did not want to be represented by the previous solicitor.
Ms Okonkwo said the tribunal went on to consider the woman’s situation in her absence, decided the woman suffers from schizophrenia and her detention should continue for another six months.
Ms Okonkwo said the finding on schizophrenia was new and was not supported by any medical evidence. She said, according to the woman’s medical records, there has never been a diagnosis of such a condition.
She said the woman is not a risk to anyone and her family want her to be allowed come home and remain as an outpatient at the hospital.