Irish Prisons and Article 3 ECHR
Agnieska Martynowicz of the IPRT has an excellent article in today’s Irish Times about the relationship between the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment protected under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and structural overcrowding in prisons. Liz has blogged about the overcrowding problem in Irish prisons and the Inspector of Prisons Annual Report here and Agnieska draws attention in her article to the view which the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture has taken on Ireland’s prisons:
In 1998, it assessed the problems of overcrowding in Irish prisons as “endemic”. It repeated its concerns in 2002 and in 2006 the committee identified overcrowding as an exacerbating factor for other systemic problems such as poor cell conditions, poor regimes and inter-prisoner violence. The committee is also very clear that expanding the prison estate is not a solution to the problem.
The recent cases of Orchowski -v- Poland (Application No 17885/04) and Norbert Sikorski -v- Poland (Application No 17599/05) concerned prisoners who, on a number of occasions were held in cells shared with other prisoners and had less than the statutory three square metres of living space to each person. They were able to establish beyond reasonable doubt that for substantial periods of time, the applicants had not been provided with the minimum “humanitarian” amount of space. The court held that the distress and hardship endured by the applicants had exceeded the unavoidable level of suffering inherent in detention. Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights was, accordingly, violated.
Agnieska provides an astute assessment of the consequences of the ECtHR Article 3 jurisprudence for Ireland:
While to date there has been no case decided in Irish law specifically challenging prison conditions as inhuman and degrading, the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003, requiring public bodies to act in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, adds another legal basis for possible challenge.
Under the Act, the courts are also under a duty to interpret Irish law in a manner compatible with the convention as interpreted by the European court.
Considering the fast-developing human rights standards in this area, future challenges at the domestic level under the Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 can be anticipated.
The two judgments against Poland signify that the European court may well look favourably on cases brought against Ireland in similar context.
While the urgency of the current overcrowding crisis is clear in human rights terms, there may also be significant financial consequences for State inaction in terms of payment of any damages ordered in successful cases.
This possibility and the wider consequences of a successful challenge should be considered by the Irish Government in their handling of the issue.