Monday 26 August 2019

Elderly woman was living in 'abject squalor' despite €164k lodged in court for her, High Court judge told

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Tim Healy

An elderly woman lived in “abject squalor” in her home for almost two years without light, heat and adequate nutrition when €164,000 was lodged in court for her, the High Court has heard.

By order of the president of the High Court, and in the context of an inquiry as to whether the woman should be made a ward of court, she was removed from her home recently and taken to a hospital for physical and psychiatric assessment.

New clothes had to be purchased for her as “an emergency measure”, the court heard.

Her home was described as a health hazard for reasons including its general state of disrepair and hygiene. A raw chicken, the court heard, had been in the hallway for some time.

The woman has no family and her cat was located in very poor condition. A vet, despite believing the cat should be put down, is endeavouring to keep it alive because of the woman’s affection for it.

At a hearing early last month, Mr Justice Peter Kelly strongly criticised solicitors who acted for her concerning a personal injury claim which settled in July 2017 for €164,000 over their failure to progress a wardship petition despite their undertaking to do so.  

Despite correspondence sent by the wards of court office since August 2017, a petition had not been brought, he said. 

The law firm which initially handled the case has closed and, on the direction of the Law Society,  the woman’s file was transferred to another firm in March 2018. Both firms were criticised by the judge over delays in progressing the wardship petition.

The judge had last month discharged the solicitors from further dealing with it and instead appointed Patricia Hickey, general solicitor for wards of court, to progress the petition.

In that context, Ms Hickey instructed solicitor Catherine Ghent to act as the woman’s guardian and to visit her and ascertain her views.

When the matter returned before the judge on Wednesday, the woman was in court in a wheelchair.

She told the judge she was being well looked after in hospital and was prepared to stay short term in a psychiatric unit, as proposed by the HSE. She also said she hoped to get her house done up. 

She said she had been “starving” and living on crackers and water and now weighed less than seven stone.

The judge told her he had arranged for her removal to hospital after seeing photos of “abject squalor” in her home.

The “tragedy” was that, all this time, there was a sum of €164,000 for her in court and he would be taking further steps in due course concerning the solicitors, he said.

Noting the woman had said she was prepared to go to an in-patient psychiatric unit for assessment and to stay there in the short term, he said he would make those orders and take into account her views on any long term proposals.

Noting the woman’s wish to go to Lourdes, he said he would also see if that could be facilitated.

After the woman left the court, a solicitor for the HSE said there had been a multi-disciplinary team meeting concerning her situation this week and it was considered she needs further psychiatric assessment and observations to assist in deciding what is in her best interests.

Ms Ghent said the woman had instructed her she objected to being made a ward of court and considered she did not require court protection.

She had also said she was willing to attend for psychiatric assessment and very confident she would be “cleared” in any such assessment, Ms Ghent said.

The judge said he had received reports from two consultant geriatricians and of a court appointed medical visitor. All of the reports considered the woman, for reasons including a long standing history of psychotic illness, lacks the necessary capacity to make decisions concerning her person and welfare.

One report stated she was starving for months because she believed someone had stopped her pension payments and a solicitor had kept money from her.

The court appointed medical visitor had reported the woman exhibited a confidence often based on a psychotic interpretation of reality as she sees it but which is not based on fact, the judge noted.

Arising from the woman’s objection to being made a ward of court, the judge adjourned a decision on whether to take her into wardship pending further reports and further hearing.

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