Four men awarded €100 damages over breach of constitutional rights after Oberstown incident

By Ann O'Loughlin

A High Court judge has awarded nominal damages of €100 each to four young men over “limited” breach of their constitutional rights arising from their treatment following serious incidents last August at Oberstown children's detention centre.

Ms Justice Una Ní Raifeartaigh ruled Oberstown was entitled to separate the four into locked rooms for periods of up to three weeks and that separation was not unconstitutional.

However, their constitutional rights were breached insofar as they were deprived of physical exercise and contact with their families during the separation period, she declarared.

Their constitutional rights were also breached insofar as there were no procedural safeguards relating to imposition of separation and associated deprivations, particularly the formal written recording of decisions and reasons regarding imposition and continuation of the separation regime, she held.

The totality of conditions of detention during the separation period did not amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, she further found.

Noting the four claimed damages, including exemplary damages, she held they were not entitled to exemplary damages and were entitled only to nominal damages of €100 each.

The conduct of the executives at Oberstown was “far from a wilful and malicious violation of the applicants’ rights” and was rather “a response to a risk-fraught situation of the applicants own making”, she said.

While the response “may have gone too far in certain respects, and failed to observe procedural safeguards, the overall context was one of trying to make safe an institution which had just been through a major upheaval”.

Given the “limited” breaches of constitutional rights, and that no evidence was put before the court that the four suffered actual psychological harm, she would award nominal damages for the breaches of constitutional rights.

In light of her findings, it was not necessary to address additional claims of breach of the applicants' rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, she added.

Earlier in her 86-page judgment, the judge said the case was unusual in that it concerned the constitutional rights of young persons in a detention school.

A young person, in relation to solitary confinement or separation, has no lesser constitutional rights than an adult simply because of the educational role of a detention school and because of the quasi-parental power of the director of Oberstown under the Children’s Act 2001, she held.

The case was by four males, two aged 16, one aged 17 and the fourth 18 when it was heard earlier this year. None can be identified. A hearing to decide liability for the substantial costs will be held later.

In their action, all four alleged they were subject to "de facto solitary confinement" arising from their treatment following incidents at the north Co Dublin centre on the night of August 29/30, 2016.

Their claims included they were locked into rooms for "unjustifiable" periods without stimulation or exercise and communication only via a hatch in the door of the room.

They also alleged they were denied contact and visits with family members and their treatment was in breach of Oberstown's separation policy.

The actions were brought against the director of Oberstown, the Ministers for Justice and Children and Youth Affairs, and the State. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission was involved as an assistant to the court on legal issues.

The director of Oberstown, Pat Bergin, denied their rights were breached and said, arising from the seriousness of the August 2016 incidents, certain measures had to be taken under the separation policy.

The incidents involved a number of detained young people getting onto the roof of a building on the campus and substantial damage to another building, he said.

The director believed the four plaintiffs were involved in some way in the incidents, the court heard.

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