Supreme Court: Appeal dismissed for family seeking inquiry into death of Seamus Ludlow

Supreme Court: Appeal dismissed for family seeking inquiry into death of Seamus Ludlow

The Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal in proceedings which sought to compel the State to establish an inquiry into the handling of a Garda investigation of a murder from 1976.

Delivering judgment in the case, Chief Justice Mr Justice Frank Clarke held that there was no obligation on the State to conduct an inquiry that would have amounted to “an investigation of an investigation” of the murder.

In reaching this decision, the court considered the provisions of the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights to outline the extent of the State’s obligations to inquire into the circumstances of a death.


In 1976, Mr Seamus Ludlow was shot and killed as travelled to his house in Dundalk. While the gardaí initially began an investigation into the death, the investigation ended after three weeks. The family had apparently been told that the order “came from Dublin”.

In 1995, the family asked for a review of the case by the gardaí, where it transpired that the gardaí had received reliable intelligence from the RUC in 1979 that four named individuals had murdered Mr Ludlow. These people were apparently part of a loyalist paramilitary. Despite being arrested and interviewed, the DPP did not recommend prosecuting the cases against the individuals.

An inquiry was eventually carried out by Mr Justice Henry Barron, who provided a report to the Taoiseach in 2004. The report concluded that Mr Ludlow was an innocent victim in a sectarian killing and, moreover, that the lack of follow-up to the 1979 intelligence was a serious failure by the gardaí. These findings were accepted by the State.

A joint committee of the Oireachtas subsequently recommended setting up an inquiry into the death of Mr Ludlow. However, in 2008, the family was told that there was no urgent need for the inquiry. In 2015, the Minister for Justice apologised to the family but decided that there was nothing to be gained from a further inquiry into the matter.

As such, the uncle of the victim, Mr Thomas Fox, issued proceedings seeking to compel an inquiry into the circumstances of the murder. Both the High Court and Court of Appeal refused to grant the relief, holding that there was no requirement under the ECHR to hold the inquiry.

The Supreme Court granted leave to appeal in the case, stating that it was important to clarify the extent of the State’s procedural obligations to conduct inquiries into deaths under the jurisprudence of Article 2 of the ECHR. The court also noted that it would have to consider the “effective date” of the ECHR as a matter of domestic law.

Supreme Court

The court began by holding that the ECHR became effective in domestic law in 2003 after the enactment of the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003. Accordingly, the court held that the 2003 Act could not be retrospectively applied to argue that there was an obligation on the State to conduct the inquiry as a matter of domestic law. This did not change the fact that Ireland would have been obliged as a matter of international law to remedy any breach of the ECHR prior to 2003, but the Oireachtas never intended to retrospectively apply the ECHR to domestic law, the court said.

Further, the court noted that there would be little utility in granting the declaration sought by Mr Fox (that there were deficiencies in the Garda investigation) because it would simply confirm what had already been determined by two previous official bodies. Moreover, any such declaration would not clarify whether there was a continuing obligation on the State to investigate the murder, which was critical to the resolution of the dispute.

The court held that the only form of declaration which could be of any use in the case was one which determined if there was an obligation to “investigate an investigation”. The court was prepared to accept that the State may have certain constitutional obligations to investigate certain types of deaths, but the court was not referred to any authority in which the scope of the right to life had been held to include an investigative obligation such as that identified under the ECHR. Accordingly, the court was not satisfied that the Irish Constitution obliged the State to inquiry into the murder investigation.

The court then considered the investigative obligation of the State under the ECHR. The court outlined the case law of the ECtHR and held that the ECHR did not impose “an obligation on contracting states to investigate, as an end in itself, a defective previous investigation”. However, the court also held that there may be circumstances in which an original investigation may be reopened in order to remedy any defects in an investigation.

In applying the law to the facts of the case, the court reiterated that the original investigation did not come anywhere close to meeting the standard required by the ECHR. However, the court said that the real question in the case was whether any further inquiry to the inadequacies of the original investigation might uncover more information about the death.

The court noted that several key witnesses to any further investigation were no longer available and there was limited power to summon witnesses from Northern Ireland to this jurisdiction. The issues which prevented the previous reports from getting a full picture of the events were even more pronounced now, the court said.

As such, the court was not satisfied that any further information would be uncovered by an inquiry into the investigation. There was also no likelihood on achieving greater clarity on the reasons that the gardaí dropped the investigation, other than that which had already been explored in the Barron Report.

In light of these findings, the court decided that a declaration should not be granted in the case. As a matter of law, there was no reason for the court to grant the reliefs sought.


The court dismissed the appeal. However, it was noted that a new review would be taking place in Northern Ireland which would cover a review of the Ludlow murder. As such, it was held that the court may have to reconsider the nature of the State’s obligations to investigate the case if any new information was brought to light.

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