Important decision of the High Court in case concerning prisoner’s rights

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (The Commission) today welcomed the decision of the High Court in the judicial review proceedings entitled McDonnell v. The Governor of Wheatfield Prison which held that the Applicant’s constitutional rights were breached as a result of being on 23 hour lock-up since February 2014.

The Commission appeared as amicus curiae (or friend of the court) in the case, making oral and written submissions and drawing the Court’s attention to the significant human rights and equality principles raised by the facts of the case. The Commission’s submissions addressed in detail the constitutional right to bodily integrity, which includes a person’s psychological integrity, and protection from inhuman and degrading treatment as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Judgment reflects these human rights standards, drawing on international human rights principles in interpreting the constitutional rights engaged.

In its judgment the Court confirmed that although the Applicant is a convicted prisoner and as such he is deprived of the right to liberty, he still retains his other constitutional rights, including the right to bodily and psychological integrity. The Court noted that the 22 or 23 hour lockup regime amounts to solitary confinement. In defining solitary confinement the Court had regard to the report of the Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on Torture and other international sources on the use and effects of Solitary Confinement.

The Court stated that the solitary confinement of the Applicant for eleven months amounted to a clear and sustained violation of his constitutional right to bodily and psychological integrity. Although justified on the basis of the Applicant’s own protection, it was disproportionate to the stated risk to him. It was found that solitary confinement can cause significant psychological harm to prisoners and should be used only in exceptional circumstances and for a limited period of time. After 3 or 4 weeks there should be an intensive review of such cases to ensure the conditions can come to an end at the earliest possible time.

In welcoming the judgment, Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner of Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission stated: “I welcome this important judgment in relation to prisoners’ human rights. The treatment of prisoners in the Irish penal system is an ongoing cause of concern to the Commission, and has been the subject of negative comment by various international treaty monitoring bodies. In particular an arbitrary approach to the use of solitary confinement has the potential to impact very negatively on the wellbeing of prisoners.”

Ms Logan went on to state: “This judgment is important as it requires the Irish Prison Service to review its practice in relation to the segregation of protection prisoners from the prison population at large. The circumstance of each individual prisoner must be considered when deciding whether they should be placed on 23 hour lock up, and segregated from other prisoners. On foot of this judgment it will no longer be permissible to place a prisoner in solitary confinement for months on end. Any such detention will have to be proportionate to the perceived risk, have an end date and will be reviewed regularly. The value of the Commission’s role as amicus curiae is clearly demonstrated by important judgments such as this. ”


 For further information please contact Fidelma Joyce, IHREC, Mob: 087 783 4939

 Notes to editor

  • The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is an independent body, established in law on 1st November 2014.
  • The Chief Commissioner, Emily Logan was appointed through open competition; all fourteen members of the Commission were appointed through an independent selection panel.
  • The Chief Commissioner and all fourteen members of the Commission were appointed by President Michael D. Higgins on 31st October 2014 and account directly to the Oireachtas for their statutory functions.
  • Under Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 (2014 Act), the IHREC has a statutory remit to protect and promote human rights and equality in the State, to promote a culture of respect for human rights, equality and intercultural understanding, and to promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights and equality.
  • The 2014 Act was drafted and enacted with the stated intention of enabling the Commission to take account of new and emerging issues that are of relevance to human rights and equality. This is reflected in the definition of human rights in the 2014 Act which provides that the Commission’s mandate includes ‘the rights, liberties and freedoms that may reasonably be inferred as being inherent in persons as human beings, and necessary to enable each person to live with dignity and participate in the economic, social or cultural life in the State’.
  • Section 10 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission sets out the functions of the IHREC. Section 10(2)(e)  provides that the IHREC 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).”

  • This is the third occasion on which the IHREC will appear before the Superior Courts as amicus curiae.