As the Deputy will be aware, the High Court has jurisdiction in wards of court matters and management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service, which is independent in exercising its functions under the Courts Service Act 1998.
However, in order to be of assistance to the Deputy, I have had enquiries made and the Courts Service has advised that there are two categories of ward of court, adult and minor. An adult might require the court’s protection because of mental incapacity. This covers the majority of persons taken into wardship. When considering whether or not a person over the age of 18 years should be taken into wardship, the court must be satisfied that the person is, on the basis of the medical evidence available, mentally incapacitated and incapable of managing his or her affairs, and that it is necessary for the protection of his or her person or property that s/he be taken into Wardship.
A minor (child under 18 years of age) might also require the court’s protection and there are a number of reasons why it might be necessary to take a young person into wardship. The most common reason is that the child has been awarded substantial damages by a Court and has special housing or care needs. Wardship is declared only where it is considered necessary for the protection and/or benefit of the relevant person. While the needs of each ward are different, all wards are under a legal disability and are therefore vulnerable persons.
The Wards of Court Office, under the direction of President of the High Court, takes its responsibility to protect the person and property of every ward seriously. It ensures that the ward’s assets are protected and appropriately invested, approves expenditure on the ward’s behalf, deals with the ward’s committee or guardian (usually a family member) to ensure that the ward’s personal needs are met, deals with proposals for sale, purchase or adaptation of accommodation for the ward’s benefit, liaises with healthcare professionals and drafts proposals on the person and property of the ward for the President of the High Court.
The Courts Service has also advised that the committee or guardians are usually family members. In cases where there is no suitable relative who is prepared to act, or where there is disagreement among the ward’s relatives which cannot be resolved, or where a conflict of interest arises, the court may appoint the General Solicitor for Minors and Wards of Court to act as an independent committee or guardian to ensure that the interests of the ward are protected.
Furthermore, the Wards of Court Office appoints a case officer for each ward of court when the person is brought into wardship. The case officer meets with the committee or guardian appointed by the President of the High Court and will liaise with that committee or guardian throughout the wardship to ensure that the care and monetary needs of the ward are met. Case officers in the Wards of Court Office are all experienced Civil Servants of at least Assistant Principal level. If any concern is raised by the committee or guardian as to the property, affairs or welfare of the ward that is dealt with by the case officer in conjunction with the committee or guardian.
The Deputy will be aware that the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 was signed into law on 30 December 2015 and provides a modern statutory framework to support decision-making by adults with capacity difficulties. New administrative processes and support measures, including the setting up of the Decision Support Service within the Mental Health Commission (a body under the Department of Health), must be put in place before the substantive provisions of the Act can be commenced.
The Act provides for the repeal of the Lunacy Regulation (Ireland) Act 1871 and the Marriage of Lunatics Act 1811. The current Wards of Court system for adults will be phased out over a three year period from the commencement of Part 6 of the Act. The Act offers a continuum of options to support people in maximising their decision-making capability.
Each adult ward (a ward who has attained the age of 18 years by the date of commencement of Part 6 of the Act) will be reviewed in accordance with the new system. A ward who is found to have capacity will be discharged from wardship. A ward who continues to have capacity needs will be discharged from wardship and offered the support option most appropriate to his or her needs.