Supreme Court: Man awarded €5,000 after State breached his constitutional right to an expeditious trial
The Supreme Court has determined that an accused man was entitled to €5,000 in compensation from the State as a result of “systematic delays” in the appeal process which delayed his hearing.
About this case:
Citation: IESC 68
Judge:Mr Justice John MacMenamin
The man’s appeal had been adjourned on five occasions between 2011 and 2013 in the Court of Criminal Appeal because there were too few judges to hear his case.
Delivering judgment on behalf of the court, Mr Justice John MacMenamin stated that the State had breached the man’s constitutional right to an expeditious trial. This was so because the deficiencies in the system were known to the State and were within its power to solve, the court said.
The plaintiff, Mr Michael O’Callaghan, was accused of robbing a post office in Cork in March 2009. He was ultimately convicted in the Circuit Criminal Court in February 2011.
Following the trial, Mr O’Callaghan filed a formal notice to appeal the decision, which contained general grounds of appeal. Four months later, his lawyers brought a motion to amend the grounds of appeal and this application was granted in November 2011 by consent. Written legal submissions were filed on the same date and the matter was put into the list to fix a date.
However, at the time there was a serious issue in the Court of Criminal Appeal regarding the availability of judges and the case was adjourned five times in the list to fix dates. As such, the appeal was only heard in April 2013. In July 2013, the court delivered judgment quashing the conviction.
The plaintiff had been held in custody for the entire period that the appeal was outstanding. As such, he was in custody for 23 months before his conviction was quashed by the court.
Subsequently, in 2015, the plaintiff brought plenary proceedings against the State claiming compensation for the delay which occurred in the case. It was claimed that this delay denied Mr O’Callaghan a trial in due course of law. Specifically, the plaintiff relied on the systematic delay in the courts to ground his claim that he had been denied an expeditious trial.
The High Court rejected the claim on the basis that the delay in the case was not inordinate and that the appeal had continued to be under the supervision of the Supreme Court judge assigned to the list. It was also held that the plaintiff had failed to take steps to expedite the proceedings by applying for bail or seeking a priority hearing.
During the hearing, evidence was provided by a senior registrar that there was a very significant backlog in appeals at the time and that priority was given to appeals where there was a risk that the sentence could expire before the appeal was heard. When the plaintiff’s case was listed for hearing, there were 207 appeals for which the court could only assign seven hearing dates.
It had been submitted by the State that the plaintiff was not entitled to any damages because his legal team had contributed to the delay. The State pointed to the amended notice of appeal and the failure to apply for bail or priority listing. However, the evidence of the registrar outlined that the amendment application did not contribute to the delay and that there was “no reality” to priority being given to the case.
In the Court of Appeal, the plaintiff’s case was also dismissed. The court accepted that there was a constitutional right to an expeditious trial and outlined a list of factors to be considered in determining whether there was a breach of such right. It was also accepted that ECtHR jurisprudence on delay was relevant to the matter.
The court emphasised that the common law was an adversarial process and that the judges were not at fault for the systematic difficulties in the appeal. Overall, it was held that it was a “borderline case” of delay and, on the facts of the case, the appeal was dismissed.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by considering McFarlane v. Director of Public Prosecutions  4 I.R. 117, where it was held that a right of action existed for systematic delay. It was also noted that the appellant in McFarlane was subsequently successful in the ECtHR, where it was declared that damages for breaching the right to an expeditious trial was not an adequate remedy under the Convention.
The court considered further cases such as Nash v. DPP  3 I.R. 320, which held that damages were clearly available to an applicant for a breach of their right to an expeditious trial. It was noted that the ECtHR had held that an applicant’s conduct alone could not justify the entire length of proceedings where the process was unreasonably protracted. In Keaney v. Ireland App. No. 72060/17, (2020) 71 E.H.R.R. 22, the ECtHR reiterated that damages were not an effective remedy for delay in prosecution.
The court considered the evidence of the registrar and held that the amendment application and the absence of a bail application did not justify the overall delay in the case. Similarly, there was no reality to a priority application being granted, so this could not weigh against Mr O’Callaghan either.
While the court had “no hesitation” in adopting the framework test provided by the Court of Appeal in the case, the court differed on the issue of whether there was a timely appeal. In light of the clear and objective evidence as to systematic delay, the conduct of the plaintiff “diminished in significance”. It was unlikely that procedural applications could have expedited the appeal where there were systematic difficulties, the court said.
Although the court said that the present case was marginal, it was not satisfied that a mere declaration would reflect the justice of the case. As such, the court awarded €5000 in compensation to Mr O’Callaghan for the breach of his rights. The court emphasised that this was not a case concerning malicious prosecution and that the hearings themselves were conducted in due course of law. It was also stated that every case depended on its own facts and evidence when it came to prosecutorial or systematic delay.
The court held that the appeal had not been heard within a reasonable time. It was stated that if courts did not vindicate an individual’s constitutional rights, then the public confidence in the rule of law would be undermined. The court emphasised the unusual facts of the case and stated that there were several distinguishing factors in the matter. The court would hear further submissions on the form of the declaration to be ordered.