Trinidad public servant wins almost $1 million in unlawful imprisonment lawsuit

The court ruled in favour of accountant assistant in the Ministry of Gender Affairs, Youth and Child Development Cheryl Miller in her unlawful imprisonment lawsuit, saying that she should be compensated for her wrongful arrest and detention at the St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital.

Miller was at work on March 21, 2012, when her behaviour caused a mental health officer to conclude that she was mentally ill.

According to the Trinidad Express newspaper, she had a large, black umbrella opened on her desk; she was listening to loud music through earphones; her clothes appeared soiled and her hair was unkempt; and when asked what the problem was, she replied: “Everyone here, everyone here is against me. It goes on everyday, everybody doing me things, they even coming by the window.”

She was detained under Section 15 of the Mental Health Act, which states: “A person found wandering at large on a highway or in any public place and who by reason of his appearance, conduct or conversation, a mental health officer has reason to believe is mentally ill and in need of care and treatment in a psychiatric hospital or ward, may be taken into custody and conveyed to such hospital or ward for admission for observation.”

However, in the judgment delivered yesterday, Justice Judith Jones said that Miller’s cubicle was not a public place and that her utterances were not enough for a conclusion to be reached that she was mentally ill.

“Further, even when combined with the fact of Miller’s appearance, the open umbrella on her desk and the headphones with loud music emanating, even if I accept the evidence, while it may suggest some eccentricity it does not in my opinion provide a reason to conclude that Miller was a danger to herself or to her co-workers as concluded by the officer, far less that she was suffering from mental illness and was in need of care and treatment at a psychiatric hospital or ward,” the judge said.

‘Cheryl Miller dragged away’

She also found that Miller would have been greatly humiliated and embarrassed by the manner of her arrest in the presence of her co-workers.

“This was further compounded by her being taken onto the public street and placed in an ambulance and even further aggravated by the widespread publicity that her apprehension and detention at the mental hospital attracted. The fact that calypsoes were composed and sung about her meant that the circumstances and manner of her detention were kept in the public eye thereby increasing and intensifying her humiliation and embarrassment,” the judge said.

“Her mental suffering, affront to her dignity and damage to her reputation has continued long after the incarceration ended. The incarceration had and continues to have a traumatic effect on her. Some three years after the event she has clearly not recovered from its effects.”

Miller was only released from the psychiatric hospital after a writ of habeas corpus was granted by High Court judge Justice Vasheist Kokaram. He had ordered that she be released and evaluated and the report from the psychiatrist indicated that Miller posed no danger to herself or to the public.

The North West Regional Health Authority, the operator of St. Ann’s Pyschiatric Hospital against which yesterday’s judgment was made, has 14 days to appeal the court’s judgment. There were four other defendants in the lawsuit – the attorney general, the permanent secretary and deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Gender Affairs, and former Minister of Gender Affairs, Youth and Child Development Verna St Rose-Greaves. However, they were not found to be liable.

In an interview with the Trinidad Guardian, Miller said she was thankful she won the case, but felt she should have received much more.

“The things I was made to suffer at the hospital, that amount of money is not enough,” she told the newspaper.

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