Replacement wards of court system to be delayed without Budget funding

Decision Support Service has yet to begin operating due to ongoing funding shortfalls

A scheme to replace the almost 150-year-old wards of court system will be delayed again unless it gets the money it needs in next month’s Budget, its director has warn.

The Decision Support Service (DSS), which was committed to by the Government in 2015 and has had a chair since 2017, has yet to begin operating due to ongoing funding shortfalls.

The planned opening of the service in 2018 was delayed with an expectation that it would open this year. That will not happen and it looks likely it may not until at least 2022.

The services seeking the full €5.7 million it requested for next year to ensure it is “on track to deliver” as soon as possible, said DSS director Áine Flynn.

Without this funding, its opening could be “delayed beyond 2022”, she said.

The repeated failure to open the service puts Ireland in breach of international human rights obligations, raises safeguarding issues and denies thousands of vulnerable adults a say in basic aspects of their lives, added Ms Flynn.

The DSS will provide support to anyone with reduced capacity to make decisions about their financial and personal affairs. It is a key component of under Ireland’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified in 2018.

Victorian-era act

Currently the only provision for vulnerable adults in need of support with their affairs is the Victorian-era Lunacy Regulation Act, 1871 under which people can be made a ward-of-court, often at the instigation of family or carers. Decisions about where they live, what clothes they buy, their holidays and even relationships are made by court-appointed ward-ship committees.

There are more than 3,000 people in the wardship system and, according to Ms Flynn, there appears to have been a “significant increase” during the pandemic.

“It is now approaching five years since the legislation was signed into law. It is critically important that those who will be most affected by the Act are provided with a clear roadmap for full commencement so we can all be assured, and continue with the job of getting the service ready for operation.”

A spokesman said the Department of Justice “anticipates commencement of the services of the Decision Support Service in mid-2022 . . . The level of funding in 2021 will be subject to available exchequer funding and this will be dealt with through the Estimates process”.

‘They take everything’

On her 28th birthday, Claire Hendrick (37) wanted to buy herself a pair of runners. She had a significant sum of money in the bank after her mother's death, so could well afford the €90 pair of shoes.

“They [wardship committee] said ‘No’. They said the runners were too expensive and I had to learn to budget’. I couldn’t get them.

“Then I wanted a phone. I had to tell them which model I wanted, how much it would cost. It took three weeks to get an answer back. I got my phone in the end,” she smiles.

Claire, who has a mild learning disability, had been made a ward-of-court in 2010 four years after her mother’s death.

She had been her mother’s carer and after the family home was sold she spent three years in homeless services. Her now-deceased solicitor thought it would benefit Claire if she were made a ward.

“I had to go see a psychiatrist about being assessed for being made a ward. They said I was vulnerable and grieving and was unable to look after my own affairs.

"I hadn't a clue what was happening. All I was told was, 'Your life will be much better'." She was allocated supported housing, but on the south-side of Dublin - far from Beaumont where she had grown up.

“If I got sick I had to ring and ask permission to go to the doctor. You’re not allowed have a boyfriend without their permission – they do a full background check first.

“To go on holiday you had to tell them how much everything would cost – the hotel, the flights, the meals, spending money, down to the penny. I never asked to go on holiday because it was too much.”

She was told how much she could live on per week – “less than the disability allowance . . . I wasn’t partying but I had bills to be paid. They take everything away from you. They strip you down to nothing”.

In the end, after almost two years as a ward, she “began the battle to get out of wardship”. She had to pay for a fresh psychiatric assessment and a solicitor, and was supported by family.

“There is no way I would have got out of it without my aunt and my cousin’s support. If they had been against it there is no way I would have got out.”

Released from wardship in August 2012, she has since bought a house close to family, completed courses in early childhood education and works in a playschool.

“Yes I have a disability but I am able to live independently with a little help from my family. For me wardship was mental torture. I was lucky enough that I had family to support me. And I am not seen as a a lunatic anymore.”