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Mental / behavioural disorders and medical fitness for sea service

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

During medical examinations, seafarers who have been diagnosed with some form of mental or behavioural disorder in the past can be subject to stereotypical analysis and declared unfit for sea service by the physicians or the competent authorities of a State. Just stumbled across this case where a seafarer, questioning the reasonableness of such a decision took the Transport Ministry of Canada to Court (Houle v. Canada Attorney General [2020]).

The seafarer had been living with a diagnosis of residual schizophrenia but had been asymptomatic for more than 25 years. He was taking his medication and also visiting the psychiatrist regularly. He was trying to get the two yearly renewal of his marine medical certificates done when Transport Canada determined that the seafarer was at risk of relapse and that the risk was too great for him to be master of a vessel. The seafarer went to different Tribunals and even the Human Rights Commission, alleging that Transport Canada discriminated against him by imposing limitations on his marine medical certificate without taking into account the current absence of symptoms. Having been unsuccessful there, he appealed to the Federal Court of Canada.

Referring to the ILO / WHO Guidelines (which aim to harmonize the conditions for granting marine medical certificates), the Court said that (a) the physicians assessing seafarers should have knowledge of the living and working conditions on board ships and the job demands on seafarers; and (b) there has to be flexibility in applying the criteria for determining fitness for sea service. Both these criteria were not complied with here. Also, Transport Canada had in the past issued provisional medical certificates to the seafarer. Finding both the decision and the process employed by the competent authority here as unreasonable, the Court directed them to reconsider the whole matter.

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