Supreme Court: Appeal dismissed for inmate who sought damages after hunger strike in prison
The Supreme Court has ruled that a prison was not liable in damages to an inmate who went on hunger strike following complaints about his living conditions.
The inmate had been granted €5,000 in damages by the High Court after it was held that the prison had taken six weeks to make a decision on the complaints, which was a failure of the policy and prolonged the strike.
However, the Supreme Court held that there was no liability for the prison in the case. The court considered the legal tests such as causation, duty of care and foreseeability and determined that the prisoner’s claim failed on each of them.
The court also ruled that it was inappropriate to grant a declaration that the prison was in breach of its own complaints policy, although the court was divided on that issue.
The prisoner had been sentenced to 12 years in an unidentified prison for serious offences. The prisoner decided to enter solitary confinement voluntarily on the basis that there was a threat to his life from others in the prison.
The prisoner suffered from certain mental and psychological conditions. Following some staffing issues for the prison, two aspects of his imprisonment changed. First, his food was delivered by fellow inmates, when it used to be delivered by kitchen staff. Second, the inmate was no longer able to exercise in the prison yard on his own, which resulted in the inmate remaining in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day.
The prisoner was upset with the new arrangements because he felt that his food would be poisoned by fellow inmates. He also refused to go anywhere other than the prison yard for exercise. Although several alternative arrangements were offered to the inmate, he refused all of them. He was encouraged to enter the prison’s complaints system, but no decision was made on his complaint for six weeks. During this time, he was on a hunger strike in protest of his conditions.
The prison governor eventually took High Court proceedings to confirm the obligations owed to the prisoner. The proceedings ended after the prisoner decided to stop his hunger strike. However, he later took a claim against the prison seeking damages for negligence and breaches of his constitutional and ECHR rights. Further, the prisoner claimed that the prison governor failed to deal with his written complaints under the Prison Rules in an effective manner and such failure directly led to continuation of his hunger strike, resulting in damage to him.
The High Court rejected the inmate’s claim for damages, stating that his refusal of food was primarily his responsibility. However, the court determined that the prison’s complaints procedure was “considerably less than satisfactory” and that the prison bore “some responsibility” for the escalation of the matter. As such, the court awarded €5,000 in damages to the prisoner. The court also granted a declaration that the prison governor had breached the terms of the complaints policy.
The Court of Appeal overturned the ruling. The court applied the test in Glencar Explorations plc. v. Mayo County Council (No. 2)  1 I.R. 84 in respect of causation, proximity, and foreseeability of injury. It was noted that the prisoner would have faced significant issues to prove causation, given that it was the refusal to accede to the prisoner’s demands rather than any delay in the complaints process which led to the hunger strike.
The Court of Appeal also determined that the prison’s complaints policy lacked any legal basis to establish a proximate relationship between the parties which would give rise to damages. On the issue of foreseeable injury, it was noted that the prisoner failed to identify any physical symptoms to base his claim, which would have made any assessment of injury very difficult.
The prisoner appealed to the Supreme Court. Delivering judgment in the case, Mr Justice John MacMenamin upheld the findings of the Court of Appeal on the issue of damages. The court held that the Court of Appeal was correct that the hunger strike was caused by the governor’s refusal to accede to the prisoner’s demands, which was an “insuperable difficulty on causation” for the inmate.
Considering proximity and foreseeable injury together, the court said: “It is not easy to see how the governor could owe a duty of care to prevent the appellant, a person held to be of sound mind, from embarking on this hunger strike, where he sought to place pressure on the authorities to agree to his demands, when this was inherently an autonomous decision.” A person of sound mind must be held responsible for their own actions, the court said (Reeves v. Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis  3 W.L.R. 363 considered; Orange v. Chief Constable  EWCA Civ 611 considered).
While there was much case law to say that many aspects of imprisonment carried a duty of care on the prison, but authorities were not required to guarantee that an inmate did not suffer any injury. Further, courts would be slow to impose a duty of care where it may cause a prison authority to be “hamstrung” in the discharge of their functions. Accordingly, the court was satisfied with the Court of Appeal’s assessment of the damages issue and refused the appeal.
However, Mr Justice MacMenamin was at odds with the rest of the court on the issue of making a declaration. Mr Justice MacMenamin took the view that it was in the public interest to have an effective system for resolving complaints within the prison service. He held that he would exercise his discretion to grant a declaration that the administration of the prison’s policy document did not comply with the requirement to provide an effective complaints system to the inmate.
Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell and Mr Justice Peter Charleton both delivered judgments in opposition to the proposed declaration. Mr Justice O’Donnell noted that the declaration granted by the High Court flowed from the determination that a duty of care was owed by the prison to the inmate, but that fell away once the court rejected the claim.
Mr Justice O’Donnell outlined a number of “fundamental objections” to the declaration, including that the declaration was never sought as relief by the inmate and that it was a “standalone relief shorn of any cause of action” about the complaints procedure. The inmate did not have any legitimate interest in the declaration being made and the source of any obligation to provide an effective complaints system was not identified by Mr Justice MacMenamin.
Mr Justice Charleton described the declaration as “singularly inappropriate.” The point of a declaration was to make a binding legal statement as to a right and policy issues classically fell outside the scope of matters which would be considered by the courts. A declaration that a party “could have done better” was not an appropriate use of the relief, Mr Justice Charleton said (Omega v. Barry  IEHC 23; Transport Salaried Staff Association v CIÉ  IR 1 considered).
The appeal was dismissed in its entirety.