Supreme Court: Former Mountjoy prisoner awarded €7,500 for breach of personal rights

A former “protection prisoner” who was held in a cell with other prisoners without sanitation or running water for up to 23 hours a day has been awarded €7,500 in the Supreme Court.

Emphasising that the case was fact-specific and that the award should not be seen as establishing a “benchmark”, Mr Justice John MacMenamin held that the man was entitled to a declaration that the conditions of his detention infringed his constitutional rights under Article 40.3 of the Constitution.


The plaintiff, Gary Simpson, was a prisoner in Mountjoy between February and September 2013.

As a “protection prisoner”, Mr Simpson had to be kept in isolation from other prisoners – and was therefore detained in cells on the D1 wing in Mountjoy prior to the refurbishment of that part of the prison. At the time, there was no in-cell sanitation provided in the cells of D1 landing nor was there a sink or running water.

Prisoners were normally provided with a slopping out chamber pot and a plastic bucket for water for washing their hands. Mr Simpson should have been entitled to detention in a cell by himself due to the fact that he was kept in his cell for up to 23 hours per day – however, due to overcrowding, Mr Simpson shared his cell with other prisoners.

High Court

In July 2014, Mr Simpson issued a plenary summons seeking various declarations and claiming damages including exemplary and punitive damages or, in the alternative, damages pursuant to s. 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003.

In his statement of claim, Mr Simpson alleged that he regularly had to urinate into empty milk cartons because the chamber pot he was given was too small to be used more than twice without being emptied. He also alleged that he had to defecate into a refuse bag for the same reason.

The declarations sought included:

  • That the conditions and circumstances of his detention amounted to a breach of his right to dignity and his right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment – in breach of Articles 40.3.1 and 40.3.2 of the Irish Constitution and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
  • That the practice of slopping out and using a chamber pot in the context of shared cell occupancy amounted to a breach of his right to dignity and to respect for his private life as guaranteed by Article 40.3.1 and 40.3.2 of the Constitution and Article 8 of the ECHR.

In September 2017, Mr Justice Michael White found that there had been a breach to Mr Simpson’s constitutional right to privacy. However, while sympathising with Mr Simpson “in his distress about the conditions of his imprisonment which were unacceptable in many respects”, Mr Justice White declined to make an award of damages citing Mr Simpson’s “untruthful and exaggerated evidence”.

Supreme Court

Stating that Mr Simpson had been exposed to distressing and humiliating conditions which “fell far below acceptable standards in an Irish prison in the year 2013”, Mr Justice John MacMenamin said the conditions infringed Mr Simpson’s “personal rights under Article 40.3 of the Constitution, including those of privacy, and the values of dignity and autonomy”. Indeed, Mr Justice MacMenamin commented that Mr Simpson “was exposed to conditions that would have fallen below acceptable standards, even if this case had been taken a decade or more earlier”.

Emphasising that the numerous pending cases would “stand or fall on their own facts”, Mr Justice MacMenamin said the outcome of Mr Simpson’s case should only be seen “within the context of its particular timeframe and circumstances” and that the award should not be “seen as establishing a “benchmark” when other cases may differ on their facts”.

Mr Justice MacMenamin concluded that Mr Justice White had adopted the correct approach in his application of the law, but disagreed as to the form of the declaration and the extent of the remedy.

Varying the order of the High Court, Mr Justice MacMenamin held that Mr Simpson’s case was an appropriate case for moderate compensatory damages of  €7,500. Mr Justice MacMenamin also granted a declaration that the conditions of Mr Simpson’s detention between the 13th February and the 30th September, 2013, infringed his constitutional rights under Article 40.3 of the Constitution.

In a concurring judgment, Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell said he had no doubt that the treatment was prohibited by Article 40.3.2 of the Constitution, and that the treatment, “at least in general terms, would fall foul of Article 3” of the ECHR.

Agreeing that the right of the person protected by Article 40.3.2 were breached in this case, Mr Justice O’Donnell said that when the Constitution is viewed as a whole “it seems clear that the guarantee of protection of the person in Article 40.3.2 must mean that, while the State may lawfully deprive a citizen of liberty in accordance with law, it may not do so by a means which, far from assuring the dignity of the individual, falls below a standard that could be considered minimally acceptable”.

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