A High Court ruling means that residents of psychiatric hospitals such as St Brendan's may be entitled to welfare payments

The Sunday Tribune understands the government could be facing a potential bill of hundreds of millions of euro after a landmark High Court case ruled that a resident of a psychiatric hospital was owed €60,000 in settlement of a claim for backdated welfare payments.

The revelation comes at a time when the exchequer finances have been under significant strain due to the ongoing sharp economic downturn.

The now 55-year-old woman, who has been in hospital care for 25 years, had sued the minister for health and children and the minister for social affairs for allegedly excluding her from receiving disability benefit while she was in hospital.

The woman was admitted on a permanent basis to a hospital in May 1983, having been diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. Prior to this, she had been receiving a
disabled persons' maintenance allowance, but this payment was cut off 13 weeks after she went into hospital.

As a result, the psychiatric patient claimed she had been discriminated against and was entitled to backdated welfare payments from July 1983 to October 1996, when the disability benefit scheme was changed.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Family Affairs stressed that the case was "settled without prejudice for a sum significantly less than the plaintiff sought and without any admission of liability on the part of the state".

But she also confirmed that it is dealing with one other claim of a "similar nature".

"Since no admission has been made by the department in this regard, the question of potential liability does not arise from this case," she added.

However, well-placed sources say that as many as 3,000 further claims, potentially relating to tens of thousands of euro each in backdated payments, could now be lodged against the state on foot of the settlement.

The sources also pointed out that much depends on the capacity of the individuals in question to pursue such claims, given their situation.

The estates of deceased residents could also seek to claim backdated welfare payments.