More than 200 people with learning disabilities are living in hospital and a Government dead
line for them to be resettled in the community will be breached, the High Court has been told.
Lawyers for a voluntary patient staying at Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Antrim for the past 11 years have claimed there is a potential legal failure involved.
Judicial review proceedings have been brought to challenge the delayed discharge of patients from Muckamore and the hearing has highlighted issues in meeting Government targets relating to the care of people with learning disabilities.
Michelle O’Neill, the outgoing deputy chair of the Stormont health committee, said the figures show hundreds of people across Northern Ireland are being failed by the current system.
She said: “The current situation is a disgrace. I have listened to both sides of the argument and patients and their families do not always want to be resettled in the community, but for those who do, the support should be there to make that possible.”
In 1997 the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) set a target that all patients in long-stay learning disability hospitals would be resettled by 2002, but, by that time, only half had moved into the community.
There has been continuous revision of the deadline but the Programme for Government 2008-11 document stated that “by 2013, anyone with a learning disability is promptly and suitably treated in the community and no-one remains in hospital”.
Although deemed suitable for release, the patients cannot be allowed out unless there is suitable accommodation with support for their learning disabilities.
Opening the case brought by one patient granted anonymity in court yesterday, barrister Michael Potter said the issues have been considered in Government reports going back 30 years.
Mr Potter said Government policy states it is more beneficial for patients with learning disabilities to live in the community.
He told the court his client was detained compulsorily under the Mental Health Order in 1997, but three years later his status was changed.
It is claimed the situation breaches the man's right to privacy and family life, and freedom from discrimination under European human rights legislation.
A breach of statutory duty as a result of the reclassification in 2000 has also allegedly occurred.
The hearing continues.
Around 1% of the population of Northern Ireland has a learning disability.
Prior to the 1970s, some people with learning disabilities were placed in institutionalised settings, primarily large hospitals.
It is now widely recognised that those with learning disabilities have a right to live inclusively and independently within the community.