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Saturday 14 December 2019

State slopping out compo bill may be as high as €12M

Slopping out sees prisoners emptying their toilet buckets every morning
Slopping out sees prisoners emptying their toilet buckets every morning

The State could be hit with a multi-million euro compensation bill from prisoners after the Supreme Court awarded a former Mountjoy inmate €7,500 in damages after he was forced to slop out.

The court's landmark ruling centred on Gary Simpson's "sub-standard cell conditions", which he endured for nearly eight months in 2013.

The slopping out policy sees prisoners forced to manually empty out the toilet buckets from their cells.

Last night, Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming, chair of the Dail's powerful Public Accounts Committee, predicted the ruling could cost the State €12m, plus "very substantial legal costs", pending the outcome of 1,600 similar cases currently before the courts.

"There are approximately 1,600 other, similar, related type cases in the system," he told RTE's Six One news programme.

"Sixteen hundred cases at €7,500 - that's €12m - plus there are going to be very substantial legal costs."

Mr Fleming estimated the legal bill alone from the Simpson case to be around €3m.

Delivering the judgment on behalf of the five-judge court, Mr Justice John MacMenamin said the conditions Simpson endured were "distressing, humiliating and fell below acceptable standards in an Irish prison in the year 2013".

Simpson was awarded €7,500 damages over the "violation of his constitutional right to protection of his person".

The practice of slopping out, which still exists for a minority of prisoners, has been roundly condemned by the Inspector of Prisons as well as in a 1993 report by the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture.

Mr Justice MacMenamin stressed that the €7,500 award cannot be seen as a "benchmark" when other cases may differ as to facts.

In 2010, the State began a programme of prison refurbishment with a goal of single- cell occupancy and in-cell sanitation.

In a 2017 High Court ruling, Mr Justice Michael White found the practice breached Simpson's constitutional right to privacy and dignity.

Inhuman

However, the court ruled he was not subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment while he was a protected prisoner sharing a cell with another prisoner on 23-hour lock-up.

Mr Justice White refused damages and also refused Simpson his legal costs, estim- ated at more than €1m, against the State.

However, he did not order him to pay the State's costs because of the court's criti- cism of matters including limited access to showers for prisoners on 23-hour lock-up.

Simpson appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The State did not appeal the finding concerning his right to privacy and dignity.

Giving the Supreme Court's main judgment, Mr Justice MacMenamin said the case was brought under the Constitution and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) but, as the Constitution is the primary law of the State, it takes precedence over the ECHR issues.

The conditions to which Simpson was exposed in Mountjoy in 2013 were "distressing, humiliating and fell below acceptable standards in an Irish prison in the year 2013", he said.

A deprivation of liberty must be in accordance with the law, and any limiting of prisoners' fundamental rights must be proportionate and not fall below identified standards, to protect human dignity.

Conditions of detention must comply with national and international standards which Ireland has "pledged to uphold".

The conditions to which he was exposed diminished the right to privacy and the "value of dignity due to him as a person", even within the limitations necessarily arising from his detention.

The Justice Department said last night that it and the Irish Prison Service "are studying the judgment carefully, in consultation with the State Claims Agency", which is handing similar cases.

However, the practice of slopping out has been "virtually eliminated in Irish prisons".

Nevertheless, as of last month, 58 prisoners in single cells did not have access to in-cell sanitation, the department said in a statement.

Fiona Ni Chinneide, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said that while it welcomed the ruling and acknowledged that the State was working to eliminate the practice, 20 prisoners in Limerick and 38 at Portlaoise were still "slopping out".

In addition, 1,802 prisoners out of last month's prison population of 3,957 "are still required to toilet in the presence of others", many having to take their meals in close proximity to the toilet, she added.

She said the ruling "does underline the absolute im- portance of meeting basic human rights norms and standards".

"It's clear that slopping out is a degrading practice for prisoners and staff," she told the Herald.

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