Commission notes Court of Appeal decision in case concerning prisoner’s rights

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (“the Commission”) today notes the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the proceedings entitled McDonnell v. The Governor of Wheatfield Prison in which it appeared as amicus curiae (friend of the court). The Court of Appeal has overturned the finding of the High Court that the Applicant’s constitutional rights are being breached as a result of being held in long-term solitary confinement.

The Applicant, a prisoner in Wheatfield Prison, claims that his constitutional and human rights have been violated as a result of being subject to a 23 hour lock-up regime since February 2014. The Prison Authorities advised the Court that they have segregated the Applicant from the broader prison population as he is at risk from other prisoners.

The human rights and equality issues that the Commission addressed in order to assist the Court included the constitutional right to bodily integrity, and protection from inhuman and degrading treatment pursuant to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Commission considers that those rights have relevance to the provisions that allow prisoners to be placed on restricted regimes for their own safety over an extended period, with limited or no social interaction.

The Court of Appeal found that, although the conditions of the Applicant’s detention are extremely harsh, they do not amount to a breach of his constitutional rights, taking into account that the threat to the Applicant is grave, and the Prison Authorities are doing all they can to alleviate his conditions.

In commenting on the judgment, Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner stated: “Although the Court has not found that there was a breach of the Applicant’s constitutional rights in this case based on the evidence before it, from a human rights perspective it is important that any restricted regime being imposed on a prisoner for non-punishment purposes, would be kept under consistent review, and that the prisoner would be facilitated to have their views taken into account in the decision making process. It is questionable whether the Prison Rules, as they stand are adequate in this regard, and we would recommend they be amended to formalise the review process that should be in place to bring the segregation of a prisoner to an end at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Ms Logan went on to state: “Of particular importance in this case is the view expressed by the Court that the conditions in which the Applicant is presently being maintained are not acceptable in the long term, and that irrespective of the behaviour of the Applicant himself, the prison authorities are under a continuing obligation to make his life as comfortable as possible, and to remove any features that operate to endanger his mental health. In this regard the Commission would emphasise the high onus on the prison authorities to continuously monitor the mental health and well-being of the Applicant, and to bring to an end the restrictions on his ability to interact in the prison and avail of the facilities within the prison at the earliest possible opportunity.”


 Notes to editor

On 1 November 2014 the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which is governed by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act, 2014 was established, replacing the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority.

Section 10 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission sets out the functions of the IHREC. Section 10(2)(e)  provides that the Commission shall have a function:

“to apply to the High Court or the Supreme Court for liberty to appear before the High Court or the Supreme Court, as the case may be, as amicus curiae in proceedings before that Court that involve or are concerned with the human rights or equality rights of any persons and to appear as such an amicus curiae on foot of such liberty being granted (which liberty each of the said courts is hereby empowered to grant in its absolute discretion).”

The Judgment of the High Court was delivered in February 2015, and found that the Applicant has a right to bodily integrity and psychological integrity, and that these rights had been breached by the Respondent prison, and that the breach was neither necessary nor proportionate to the perceived risk to his person.