ECtHR: Discrimination claim rejected for man who was disqualified from State pension while serving prison sentence
The European Court of Human Rights has dismissed a discrimination claim brought by an Irish man who was disqualified from receiving a State pension while he served a prison sentence in the State.
The claim was based on Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights and concerned the operation of section 249 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.
The man argued that he had a possessory entitlement to the pension and that he suffered discrimination on the grounds of his age, his status as a prisoner reliant on the State pension and his status as a convicted person serving a sentence of imprisonment.
However, the ECtHR rejected the claim, holding that the man was not unlawfully discriminated against in any respect.
The applicant (PC) was an Irish man who was eligible for the State Pension (Contributory) through Pay Related Social Insurance contributions. He received weekly SPC payments when he turned 66 in 2006. In March 2011, PC was convicted of rape and sexual assault offences and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Section 249(1) of the 2005 Act disqualified persons who were imprisoned or detained in legal custody from receiving any benefits under Part 2 of the Act, which included the SPC. Accordingly, the applicant did not receive any pension payments while imprisoned.
Subsequently, PC issued proceedings against the State, arguing that he had a constitutional entitlement to the pension and that section 249 impugned this right. He also relied on several provisions of the ECHR to ground his claim. The High Court rejected the assertion that contributory benefits fell within the ambit of constitutional property rights. Further, it was not accepted that the applicant was discriminated against under Article 14 of the Convention.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, it was held that the disqualification represented a further penalisation of the applicant which infringed the sentencing powers of the courts. As such, section 249 contravened the separation of power and the administration of justice provided by the Constitution. The Supreme Court held that it was not necessary to consider the Convention arguments raised in light of this finding.
In a further judgment, the Supreme Court considered the appropriate remedy in the case. It was noted that the Supreme Court did not uphold the wider grounds of challenge asserted by PC and that there was nothing per se offensive to the Constitution in excluding payment of some benefits to a person whose detention was provided for by statute. Further, there was no difficulty with a court making an order in the appropriate case that benefits would not apply.
The Supreme Court held that PC was not entitled to recoup the full unpaid benefits despite the declaration of invalidity. It was held that this would provide a windfall gain which was unjustifiable. It was held that PC did not show that any personal constitutional right had been breached and had only shown that section 249 was constitutionally invalid.
Following this ruling, PC made an application to the ECtHR, complaining that his disqualification interference with his peaceful enjoyment of his possessions (Article 1 of Protocol No 1), that the prohibition of discrimination had been infringed (Article 14 ECHR) and that he was denied an effective remedy (Article 13 ECHR).
On the Article 14 claim, PC argued that he was indirectly discriminated against by reason of age because he was unable to do certain works which younger prisoners could do to gain more income. Further, it was submitted that he was being treated differently from prisoners with private pensions, who continued to receive such payments. Finally, PC maintained that he was being treated differently to other persons who were detained in the State, such as mental health patients and accused persons remanded in custody.
In response, the State noted that section 249 applied to a range of benefits and therefore the age of the applicant was not a relevant factor. Further, it was stated that the purpose of disqualification was to ensure that prisoners were not “doubly maintained” by the State. This was so because the State had to pay for prisoners and an additional pension payment would provide a windfall benefit.
European Court of Human Rights
The court began by holding that pension entitlements were not possessions within the meaning of Protocol No 1 and were instead a “simply legal entitlement”. Accordingly, Article 1 of Protocol No 1 did not have a standalone application to the present case. Rather, PC was required to establish a proprietary interest in the payments which engaged Article 14 rights on non-discrimination.
Applying Stummer v. Austria [GC], no. 37452/02, ECHR 2011, it was held (and not disputed by the State) that “the SPC represented for the applicant a proprietary interest within the meaning of the Court’s case-law on Article 14”.
On the merits of the discrimination claim, the court began by outlining that an issue only arose under Article 14 where there was a difference in the treatment of persons in analogous or relevantly similar situations. As such, comparator groups did not need to be identical to the applicant’s group. Further, it was held that not every difference in treatment would be a violation of Article 14 and that a discriminatory treatment must have no objective or reasonable justification. Finally, a wide margin was usually allowed to states when it came to general measures of economic or social strategy.
Applying the principles to the case, the court rejected the complaint of age discrimination. It was accepted that section 249 applied to several kinds of benefits and so there was no direct discrimination. Further, while PC gave evidence that he could not work and younger prisoners could due to his health, this was not evidence that his class of person was indirectly discriminated against.
Further, the court rejected the contention that PC was discriminated against when compared with prisoners with private pensions. It was held that the complaint concerning a right to a welfare benefit could not be considered to be an aspect of personal status within the meaning of Article 14. It was not an innate characteristic or a core personal belief, the court said.
The court also rejected the complaint of discrimination based on PC’s status as a prisoner. It was held that the other comparator groups identified by PC were not sufficiently similar to ground the discrimination claim. It was noted that mental health patients were not criminally culpable and were detained under a civil mechanism, while accused people remanded in custody were presumed innocent pending conviction. As such, the two groups were not in an analogous position for the discrimination claim to be justified.
Finally, the court rejected the submission that PC was denied an effective remedy under Article 13. He was allowed to raise his points in the Supreme Court and, have been successful on one point, it was held to be unnecessary to consider the ECHR arguments. This could not be regarded as an omission by the Supreme Court, the ECtHR held.
It was held that there was no violation of Article 14 and the case was dismissed.
PC v. Ireland (Application 26922/19)