Attorney pleads for protection of mental health patients’ rights

Attorney pleads for protection  of mental health patients’ rights

PHILIPSBURG--Criminal lawyer and former dean of the Bar Association of St. Maarten Geert Hatzmann urges the Court of St. Maarten for a legal review of mental health patients’ deprivation of liberty. While the police interrogate suspects in the presence of a lawyer and the examining magistrate reviews arrests, the rights of patients must also be protected, Hatzmann argues.

    He sent an urgent letter to St. Maarten Court vice-president Gert-Jan Wouters on Friday concerning “the plight of the legal position of allegedly insane people” who are admitted to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) clinic in Cay Hill. These patients, the attorney concluded, are in fact completely without rights.

    “People are often held in the clinic against their will for weeks without a judge being involved to assess whether this deprivation of liberty is really meaningful and proportionate; in short, whether it is absolutely necessary,” Hatzmann said.

    As a criminal lawyer, the lack of legal review strikes Hatzmann as shocking. “I am used to the fact that when someone is detained by authorities, a judge is present within three days who must assess whether that detention was initially lawful and whether that detention is still necessary after three days or whether this is disproportionate and therefore unlawful. But alleged mental patients are in a completely different league than alleged murderers, robbers and rapists.”

    Alleged mental patients do not enjoy the protection of the strict rules of the Criminal Procedure Code. They fall under the regime of the National Ordinance regulating the supervision of the insane. “This regulation is completely archaic – it dates from 1921 and is therefore already 103 years old! – and does not do justice to current social views on the rights and legal position of patients and alleged patients,” Hatzmann concluded. “In fact, this is not regulated at all. In this National Ordinance, a person classified as insane is merely an object that poses a danger, which danger must be curbed.”

    This is a very undesirable but also unsafe situation, he said, referring to the death on August 25, 2020, of 42-year-old Caulette Julien in the MHF isolation cell in Cay Hill. At the time of her death, she had been locked up in that solitary cell almost continuously for more than two weeks, after she had voluntarily admitted herself to MHF.

    There is also the case of Lance Thomas, who died in July 2021 in a cell at the police station in Philipsburg, where he stayed on the orders of MHF, not on suspicion of any criminal offence. A few months after Thomas' death, the Prosecutor's Office announced that a criminal investigation into his death had been opened and that individuals had been identified as suspects. To this day, it is not clear what the status of the investigation is.

    The core of the matter, Hatzmann concluded, is that MHF does not seem to want to learn from the calamities of recent years and still very lightly locks people up against their will for a long time (sometimes even in an isolation cell for at least days) and also forcibly administers medication to them. “MHF believes it can play God, and I would also like to note that the Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Public Health, Social Affairs and Labor VSA, which are both required to exercise supervision, do not hinder them from doing so.”

    The lawyer argues that a docket arrangement and a legality test should be introduced immediately. “The Solicitor General has informed me that work is currently underway on a new National Ordinance that will greatly improve the legal position of alleged patients. For example, these people will be assigned a lawyer (almost) immediately after their compulsory admission and the judge will have to assess whether a compulsory admission is actually necessary.”

    This is great news for the future, Hatzmann said. “To be honest, I don't buy anything for that. When I arrived in St. Maarten in 2007, I already heard that there were plans for a new detention centre. I don't have to explain to you what became of that.”

    Waiting for a new law is not an option, he concluded. “In my view, a docket arrangement should be set up immediately and, just as in criminal cases, a judicial review should take place within three days and renewed reviews at regular intervals thereafter (for example in the same terms that apply with regard to pre-trial detention in criminal cases).”

    According to Hatzmann, the fact that there is no legal framework for this innovation is not a problem. “If working agreements are made between the parties involved, these agreements can be regarded as customary law or judicial law.”

    Moreover, Hatzmann pointed out, the current malpractice is in flagrant violation of Articles 3 and 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights ECHR and sometimes even in violation of ECHR Article 2. “That honestly seems like a much bigger problem to me!”

    In August 2021, Hatzmann already pleaded for attorneys and prosecutors to be assigned to mental health cases and said it is essential that the prosecutor and the lawyer proactively consult with each other about forced admissions. “No one has all the wisdom, not even a psychiatrist. Caulette’s case demonstrates this sufficiently,” said Hatzmann, who is the legal representative of the family of the late Julien. “If the Prosecutor's Office had been informed of this case, Caulette’s forced admission would most likely have been reversed immediately and she would most likely still be alive.”

The Daily Herald

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