Prison Service Withdraws Appeal on Significant Disability Rights Case

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (the “Commission”) has welcomed the decision this week of the Irish Prison Service (IPS) to withdraw their appeal of a significant High Court judgment, which found that the IPS must provide reasonable accommodation to prison officers with disabilities.

In the case Cunningham v Irish Prison Service, the Commission provided legal representation to Mr. Robert Cunningham, who had raised a significant issue regarding the interpretation of Ireland’s employment equality law. His case has implications for people with disabilities in employment.

Mr. Cunningham suffered workplace-related injuries in the course of two separate assaults by prisoners. Arising out of these incidents he developed back problems, and underwent a series of operations.  Following a medical assessment by the IPS, he was told that he could not retain his job as a prison officer, as he might be unable to perform restraint and control duties, but that he could resign and apply for a lower paid position or seek ill-health retirement.

Mr Cunningham claimed discrimination on the ground of disability under the Employment Equality Act (EEA), complaining that the IPS had failed to make any reasonable accommodation for him as required by the Act. He succeeded at the Workplace Relations Commission, but lost at the Labour Court on appeal by the IPS. Mr Cunningham appealed the Labour Court decision to the High Court on a point of law.

In June 2020, in a significant High Court judgment, Mr Justice Anthony Barr overturned the Labour Court preliminary finding that the prison service had a blanket exemption from the complaint of discrimination by virtue of Section 37.3 of the Employment Equality Act.

Mr. Justice Barr found that Section 37.3 did not “absolve” the IPS of its obligations to provide reasonable accommodation for disabled people if they could be provided reasonably while preserving the service’s operational capacity.

The IPS appealed the decision of the High Court to the Court of Appeal. This week, however, counsel for the IPS informed the Court that the IPS would withdraw its appeal, leaving the High Court decision stand. Mr. Cunningham’s case will now return to the Labour Court, where his complaint of alleged discrimination will be fully heard. The Court awarded costs to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

Sinéad Gibney, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission stated:

Having been seriously injured in the course of his duties as a prison guard, Mr. Cunningham was told that he could not continue to work as a prison guard as a result of his disability. The IPS then claimed an exemption from the obligation to provide him with reasonable accommodation by virtue of its operational requirements.

“The Commission welcomes the IPS’ decision to withdraw its appeal of Mr. Justice Barr’s High Court decision. Mr. Cunningham’s complaint of discrimination on the ground of disability is now pending before the Labour Court, and the Commission will endeavour to offer him every assistance in that regard. This is an important case that illustrates the importance of access to work to the dignity of persons with disabilities.”


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Editor’s Note

The Commission’s written submissions to the High Court are available here:

Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is an independent public body, appointed by the President and directly accountable to the Oireachtas. The Commission has a statutory remit set out under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 to protect and promote human rights and equality in Ireland, and build a culture of respect for human rights, equality and intercultural understanding in the State.

The Commission is Ireland’s national human rights institution and is recognised as such by the United Nations. It is also Ireland’s national equality body for the purpose of a range of EU anti-discrimination measures.

Under its legal functions set out in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, the Commission can, in certain circumstances, provide legal assistance to a person who wishes to bring a matter of human rights or equality of treatment before the Courts or the Workplace Relations Commission.

Assistance under Section 40 of the Act means any or all of the following

  1. the provision, or the arranging for the provision of, legal advice to the applicant;
  2. the provision, or the arranging for the provision of, legal representation to the applicant
  3. the provision of such other assistance to the applicant as the Commission deems appropriate in the circumstances;