Simpson v Governor of Mountjoy Prison

JurisdictionIreland
CourtSupreme Court
JudgeMr. Justice John MacMenamin,O'Donnell J.
Judgment Date14 November 2019
Neutral Citation[2019] IESC 81
Docket Number[S.C. No. 17 of 2017],[S:AP:IE:2017:000170]
Date14 November 2019
BETWEEN:
GARY SIMPSON
PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT
AND
THE GOVERNOR OF MOUNTJOY PRISON, THE IRISH PRISON SERVICE, MINISTER FOR JUSTICE AND EQUALITY, IRELAND

AND

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
DEFENDANTS/RESPONDENTS

[2019] IESC 81

Clarke C.J.

O’Donnell J.

McKechnie J.

MacMenamin J.

O’Malley J.

[S:AP:IE:2017:000170]

[Record No. 170/17]

AN CHÚIRT UACHTARACH

THE SUPREME COURT

THE SUPREME COURT

Prison conditions – Inhuman or degrading treatment – Unenumerated right – Appellant seeking to couple the jurisprudence of the ECHR together with a claim in the nature of a constitutional tort, seeking to recover damages in Irish law – Whether the constitutional rights of the appellant, and in particular the right of the person protected by Article 40.3.2° were breached in this case

Facts: The appellant, Mr Simpson, argued that the prison conditions to which he was subjected violated an unenumerated right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, in terms and scope identical to the area protected by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In these proceedings, the appellant’s argument sought to couple the detailed jurisprudence of the ECHR together with a claim in the nature of a constitutional tort, seeking to recover damages in Irish law, implicitly on a scale more generous than that provided in claims before the ECtHR, for the breach of the unenumerated right.

Held by the Supreme Court (O’Donnell J) that this reasoning could not be accepted. While it is perhaps understandable that a plaintiff would seek to blend the established ECHR jurisprudence on prison conditions with a claim for damages for breach of an Irish constitutional right, this is not, in O’Donnell J’s view, a permissible course, at least in the way advanced in this case. O’Donnell J held that when the Constitution is viewed as a whole, it seems clear that the guarantee of protection of the person in Article 40.3.2° must mean that, while the State may lawfully deprive a citizen of liberty in accordance with law, it may not do so by a means which, far from assuring the dignity of the individual, falls below a standard that could be considered minimally acceptable. O’Donnell J noted that it was not suggested that the conditions in which the appellant was held could be justified or excused either by exigency or emergency or some contravening weighty consideration.

O’Donnell J held that he agreed with MacMenamin J that the constitutional rights of the appellant, and in particular the right of the person protected by Article 40.3.2° were breached in this case.

Judgment approved.

Judgment of O'Donnell J. delivered the 14th day of November 2019.
1

I agree with the judgment about to be delivered by MacMenamin J. in this matter, and add these observations only because certain arguments made in this case have touched on issues which may require further consideration in future cases.

2

Given the extent to which prison conditions have been the subject of consideration by the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”), it is, perhaps, understandable that the appellant's case here was, broadly speaking, that the conditions to which he was subjected violated an unenumerated right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, in terms and scope identical to the area protected by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). In these proceedings, the appellant's argument seeks to couple the detailed jurisprudence of the ECHR together with a claim in the nature of a constitutional tort, seeking to recover damages in Irish law, implicitly on a scale more generous than that provided in claims before the ECtHR, for the breach of the unenumerated right.

3

I agree with MacMenamin J. that this reasoning cannot be accepted. At first sight, it may appear both unremarkable and unobjectionable. Who, after all, can possibly be heard to question a right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment? It is also fair to observe, that in one of the earliest prison condition cases in this jurisdiction, The State (C.) v. Frawley [1976] I.R. 365 accepted that the unenumerated right to bodily integrity included a right to freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, although the right in that case was not found to have been breached, and there was little focus therefore on the derivation of the right. Furthermore, since the coming into force of the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 it is possible to claim damages for a breach by the State of its obligation under section 3 to perform its functions in a manner compatible with the State's obligations under the Convention provisions (subject to any statutory provision or rule of law) if no other remedy in damages is available. It might appear, therefore, that debate about the route is superfluous when the correct destination is reached.

4

While nothing may turn in this or indeed in many cases, it is important to consider the line of reasoning asserted on behalf of the appellant, since if correct, it may be adopted uncritically in many cases where ECHR jurisprudence is relevant. There are, or may be, differences in the nature of the claims that may be made, the defendant against whom such claims can be brought, and perhaps the approach to damages. In is important therefore to pay attention to, and scrutinise carefully, the pathway toward any claim to damages in this case.

5

I have no doubt that the Irish Constitution prohibits, and has always prohibited, conduct which is also outlawed by Article 3 of the ECHR. However, I consider it wrong in principle to seek to introduce the language and jurisprudence of the ECHR into the Irish Constitution through the vehicle of unenumerated rights protected under Article 40.3.2° of the Constitution, and in this case the unenumerated right to bodily integrity.

6

First, the Constitution makes no express or implied reference to any such right as so formulated. There are, of course, obvious historical reasons why the drafters of the ECHR felt it necessary to include an express and absolute prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment in the new Convention. But, it strains credulity to suggest that the Irish Constitution anticipated this development and not only did exactly the same thing in the same terms, but achieved this object without any express reference in the text. The terms and structure of the ECHR has meant that the interpretation of Article 3 has developed in a particular fashion and into new areas. As the extensive case law surveyed in the judgment of MacMenamin J. shows, it has, for example, become the vehicle for attempts to improve, among other things, prison conditions throughout the contracting states. Furthermore, the ECtHR has adopted an “evolutive interpretation” which has the effect of discovering new rights or expanding the protection of existing rights. This is of course a matter for the jurisprudence of that Court, and indeed may be appropriate in the terms of an international convention that is not easily amended. Again, however, it strains credulity to maintain that the Irish Constitution, through the medium of an unenumerated right, adopted the self-same prohibitions which moreover developed in precisely the same way. In any event, the function of the Irish Courts is to uphold the Constitution, and that duty cannot be performed if the scope of rights protected under the Constitution is to be determined by the jurisprudence of a court which is not established under the Constitution and has no obligation to uphold it. While it is to be expected that the two instruments guaranteeing rights considered fundamental would tend to cover much of the same ground, and the interpretation of one is often helpful in understanding similar provisions contained in the other, they are different instruments and there will be many areas, particularly at the margins (which are often the subject to litigation) where the approach, or substance, may be different.

7

While it is perhaps understandable, therefore, that a plaintiff would seek to blend the established ECHR jurisprudence on prison conditions with a claim for damages for breach of an Irish constitutional right, this is not, in my view, a permissible course, at least in the way advanced in this case. It is a noteworthy feature of this case that there is a simple assertion or, perhaps more accurately, assumption, that there is an unenumerated right to freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment protected by the Irish Constitution, without offering any explanation as to why that is so.

8

As observed already, I have no doubt that the treatment, which at least in general terms, would fall foul of Article 3 of the Convention is also prohibited by the Constitution. Torture, for example, is outlawed in Irish law because of the specific protection given to the person in Article 40.3 (and without the need to look to other provisions of the Constitution), a right which also clearly extends beyond a prohibition of treatment which can be characterised as torture. Similarly, the Irish Constitution is plainly relevant to the issue of prison conditions. Indeed, it is noteworthy that more than 40 years ago, in the specific context of prison conditions, it had been decided that, in principle at least, if prison conditions were so bad they could, in an extreme case, render a detention unlawful and require the release of the prisoner ( State (McDonagh) v. Frawley [1978] I.R. 131). A citizen can be deprived of liberty in accordance with law, but a law which itself upholds and is consistent with the Constitution and the values it espouses. However, to assert an unenumerated right to freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment in those terms is to argue backwards from a desired result, rather than forward from the text of the Constitution, and what is to be deduced from it, and the jurisprudence of...

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