After more than two weeks at the St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital, a High Court judge yesterday ordered that she be released from the institution in a special Good Friday sitting of the court.
The order and Miller’s freedom were the culmination of 48 hours of high drama which saw lawyers for Miller argue in habeas corpus proceedings that Miller was being kept unlawfully at the institution.
A visibly relieved Miller, an accountant, walked out of the institution at about 5.15 pm. It was her first taste of freedom since being taken –— according to her lawyers and three work colleagues — against her will from her desk at the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development on March 21 at the 21st floor of Tower D on Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain.
Miller, wearing an olive suit and in the company of her sister Doreen, did not speak to the media present outside the hospital. But she smiled slightly as she quietly walked away. Her freedom came after members of Miller’s family first raised the issue in reports published this past week by Newsday. Then also came protests by Miller’s co-workers, a plea in Parliament by Diego Martin Central MP Dr Amery Browne and widespread concern among civil society.
A team of lawyers acting on behalf of Miller, including Stanley Marcus SC, Fitzgerald Hinds, Margaret Hinds, Debra James and Alicia Baksh-Carter had hours earlier served a writ on the administrators of the hospital which had been issued on Thursday night, ordering that Miller be brought to the Port-of-Spain High Court for the hearing of a habaes corpus application at 2.30pm yesterday.
The writ — witnessed by Chief Justice Ivor Archie — called for Miller to be brought to the Hall of Justice by 2.30 pm and warned that failure to do so would have opened the hospital administrators to committal “to prison for contempt”. Notwithstanding, the hospital administrators kept Miller in their custody even during the habeas proceedings. In a clear breach, Miller was only released after her habeas application was over. After an almost two-hour hearing at the PoS 20 courtroom of the Hall of Justice, Justice Vashiest Kokaram ordered that Miller be released into the custody of Doreen Miller and Hamilton Groden.
He also ordered that Miller be evaluated by an independent psychiatrist and that this report be submitted to the Supreme Court Registry. The next court date was set for Thursday.
The orders were issued after both parties–lawyers for Miller and for the Medical Director of the hospital Dr Ian Hypolite–came to agreement after heated submissions.
Marcus, for Miller, argued that she was being unlawfully detained and urged the court to release her as a precaution given the “risk of injustice” that would occur were she to remain at St Ann’s.
“She was unlawfully arrested and taken into custody and nothing will cure that,” Marcus told the judge. “The applicant was at her desk in her office when they took her from her desk. It is a balancing act between protection of others, including herself, and the liberty of the subject. Her constitutional rights have been infringed.”
Assuring that follow-up lawsuits would be filed, Marcus also said, “we will certainly be filing a constitutional motion and other action. Whether for false arrest or unlawful imprisonment, the action is coming.” Marcus added, “There will be no risk of injustice to the hospital. The greater risk will be against this individual.”
In the application for habeas corpus, instructing attorney Margaret Hinds argued that there had been no proper evaluation of Miller before she was taken into St Ann’s.
She set out the grounds of the action arguing that Miller was “being detained at St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital and was forcibly removed without cause and due certificate from a medical practitioner from her workplace.” Further, she said, “the claimant has had no history of mental illness”.
Three witness statements from Miller’s co-workers, which were filed in support of the application and were obtained by Newsday also revealed, that Miller was forced from her post and did not leave voluntarily. The three accounts also reveal that the Minister, Verna St Rose-Greaves, had a brief but unspecified conversation with Miller moments before officials came to remove her and that the incident took place on a high-pressure day at the ministry when an auditor from the Auditor General’s department was present. Miller is an accountant.
Attorney for Hypolite, Vasheist Maharaj, argued that Miller, once presented at St Ann’s had been lawfully detained on the basis of an evaluation done there, as well as under section 15 (1) of the Mental Health Act, which relates to persons wandering on highways and in public places.
Maharaj argued that Miller was brought to St Ann’s under Section 6 (c) as “a medically recommended patient” though there have been questions as to the extent of evaluation conducted on Miller before she was taken to St Ann’s. Maharaj argued that once Miller was diagnosed at St Ann’s then the hospital was entitled to keep her.
Kokoram expressed doubt over the argument that Miller, an accountant, was “wandering” at her office.
“Wandering at large in a highway of a public place? It seems to me that this applies to homelessness or vagrancy,” he said. Marcus argued that the section had no application to the case “whatsoever”.
“We are on a matter of involving the liberty of this individual. She was at her desk writing and there is an affidavit from an employee of the ministry stating that two burly men came and that she was resisting. That is their evidence,” Marcus said.
On the issue of whether the hospital had committed a contempt, Marcus added, “Mr Hypolite is required to produce the lady here today at 2.30 pm. He is liable to contempt if he does not produce her. Where is she? Why is she not here?”
Maharaj said, “I know this is a concern of Mr Marcus”. The comment prompted the judge — who had issued the writ — to intervene remarking, “No, not Mr Marcus but the court. It was my order.” Maharaj justified the apparent breach by saying Miller was not brought to court because, “we would like to do it in a discrete way.”
The judge stood down the matter, asking parties to examine a possible resolution. After about 44 minutes of talks the lawyers agreed to the release and the judge issued his orders with consent.
In an immediate reaction, Miller’s sister, Doreen, who has been vocal in her calls for her sister to be freed, said she was “relieved”.
“I look forward and hope that she (Cheryl) will get back to a normal life. I would like her to be back in her workplace as normal,” she told reporters on the steps of the Hall of Justice. “It has been real stressful. I had to be running from work every minute.”
Marcus said, “The objective was to have her released today and that has been achieved.” Hinds said, “I congratulate the judiciary and reject any suggestion that this is a failed State.”
PSA president Watson Duke, who took up Doreen’s case, yesterday assured that the PSA would be willing to spend thousands and take the matter to the Privy Council. He said while he was not satisfied by the failure of the hospital to comply with the writ issued, he was satisfied with Miller’s release.