Ashimedua Okonkwo, a solicitor based in Balbriggan, has claimed that the Mental Health Commission tribunal subjected her to discriminatory remarks because she is ‘a woman and a black African’. The tribunal was considering the continued detention of a woman under the Mental Health Act. This was after Justice Costello in the High Court had directed the tribunal to make an inquiry under Article 40. The woman cannot be identified for legal reasons. The family of the woman in question chose Ms Okonkwo to represent her. However, the chairman of the tribunal, Eamonn Walsh BL did not allow Ms Oknokwo to appear. Ms Okonkwo then claimed that she was subject to remarks that she found disturbing. Following this, the woman detained under the Mental Health Act left the court rather than be represented by someone else. The tribunal then voted to keep her as an involuntary hospital patient for a further six months. They based this on the decision that the woman is suffering from schizophrenia. The woman had previously expressed a desire to go home.
Previously the woman had had another solicitor representing her. The Mental Health Commission had appointed this woman. Ms Okonkwo in a sworn statement said she agreed to represent the woman back in September. Again, this was after the woman had decided she wanted Ms Okonkwo to represent her. Yet the chairperson, Eamonn Walsh, denied that the woman had the right to choose her representative and said that the tribunal had a right to do what it considered fair and reasonable to preserve the procedure. According to Ms Okonkwo, Mr Walsh asked her if she was qualified to practice in Ireland and if she knew about the Mental Health Acts. Ms Okwonkwo had qualified in 2013, has received a Masters in Law from Trinity College Dublin and is about to receive a doctorate from the same institution. After this, the tribunal allegedly told Ms Okonkwo to sit at the back of the room where she was not allowed to speak, take notes or make a recording. Ms Okonkwo also disagreed with the tribunal’s finding of schizophrenia, saying it was unsupported by medical records.
A case then came before Justice Noonan. The Mental Health Commission conceded that the decision was unlawful. They should have allowed the woman to be represented by her own solicitor. Donal McGuiness SC and Mairead McKenna Bl read a statement on behalf of the Commission stating ‘We sincerely regret this issue arose,’. They also added, regarding the alleged discrimination ‘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,’. Ms Okonkwo has made no reply.
By Daniel Forde – Law Editor