Decision of court

The Supreme Court has ruled that the manner in which an elderly woman of 96-years was made a ward of court was flawed. The Court specifically criticised the fact that there was no legal aid available for those being made wards of court.

Wardship system

Adults are made wards of court by application to the President of the High Court. It is usually done by a care professional or a member of the ward’s family. The Court must be satisfied on the basis of the medical evidence that the person is of unsound mind and is incapable of managing his affairs. It is, or should be, done with the intention of protecting the ward’s physical wellbeing and finances. A committee becomes responsible for managing all of the ward’s affairs after a successful application to the High Court.

Sometimes, a person can be taken into wardship for the protection of his person. This would normally only occur where a person suffering from mental disability rather than a psychiatric illness.

It should be noted that legal aid is in fact available to those being made wards of court. It is, however, subject to the usual lengthy waiting lists and may not be granted in a timely fashion to allow representation to be granted in advance of the hearing.

Background to case

The elderly woman in the recent Supreme Court case was kept in Cork University Hospital in 2016. When she was released to the care of her children, the HSE had noticed what was described as eccentric behaviour on the part of the children, including buying their mother an exercise bike. She was later made a ward of court and transferred to a nursing home, on application of the HSE.

The Supreme Court ruled that the wardship proceedings in the High Court failed to give a voice to the ward, that being the elderly woman in this case. The Court said that if there was no legal representative for the ward, a guardian ad litem should have been appointed, a professional persons whose job it is to convey the ward’s views to the Court.

The Court stated that it was essential that a ward’s views were heard by the Court before making decisions that will have such a great effect on her. Similarly, the Human Rights and Equality Commission has welcomed the Supreme Court decision, saying that it is fundamental in wardship proceedings that the voice of the ward is heard.

The case is significant in restating the importance of giving a voice to the vulnerable in Court proceedings affecting their rights.