Stephen and Anne Murphy thought their 20-year battle against the State had reached a finality of sorts last year. They had fought all the way to the Supreme Court, where three judges commended their efforts to assert their rights, while dismissing their action on the basis of the law.
Judge Frank Clarke — now the Chief Justice — was so taken by what the siblings from Drimoleague in West Cork had endured that he recommended that the State make a “substantial” ex gratia payment to them.
This would at least serve as official recognition that the pair had been done a wrong, that their odyssey through the legal system was worthy of note. It would give the State the opportunity to acknowledge that what had been inflicted on the Murphys fell short of the service that citizens could expect.
The Murphys’ problems began with a dispute with neighbours over a right of way. This led in 1996 to two separate confrontations on the road outside their home with the neighbour who was driving cattle.
Public order summonses were served and the Murphy siblings, along with their father — who has since died — were prosecuted in the district court.
Stephen Murphy was particularly disturbed at the prosecution as he was convicted for an offence he was supposed to have carried out when he wasn’t even present on that day. Years later it would emerge that the errant summons, in this case, was down to a typist’s error.
Most of the convictions were dismissed on appeal to the circuit court, but the one for which Stephen Murphy was not present stood. He launched a judicial review of the result, for which he could not get legal representation.
So he represented himself, read up on the law, and eventually succeeded in having the conviction quashed. That was in 1998.
By then, however, he and his sister were convinced that the whole prosecution had been malicious. Some of the gardaí had local connections and the Murphys believed that they had not acted neutrally in the matter.
Stephen Murphy got stuck into the law books once more for a High Court action. That came to hearing in 2003, with the judge ultimately dismissing the Murphys’ case.
Not satisfied, the siblings appealed to the Supreme Court. Last year the three-judge court ruled that the evidence simply was not there that the prosecutions were malicious.
The judges were, however, sympathetic to what the Murphys had been put through, describing the work of gardaí as “slipshod”.
Judge Peter Charleton ruled that the “original conviction should never have happened. Furthermore, there should never have been a recommendation to the district superintendent of the gardaí to prosecute him in respect of any such offence… This is not impressive. While there is nothing wrong with the other charges, it is necessary for the gardaí to exercise care in the prosecution of citizens.”
However, the judges ruled that the wrongful prosecution was down to human error rather than malice on the part of anybody.
Recognising that the siblings had been done a wrong, albeit not one which would entitle them to compensation, Judge Frank Clarke suggested the State should make a “substantial” ex gratia payment to the Murphys.
This could be read as a request to the State to reconcile itself to its own citizens who had been badly served.
The judge may have had in mind that it would be a token of compensation for the 20 years of stress the Murphys endured in negotiating their way through the legal system.
Judge Clarke also made it be known that despite the Murphys losing the case, any request for costs from the State would be “treated with severe disdain”.
The Murphys weren’t happy with the outcome,
but they were grateful for the attitude of the court to their plight.
More than a year later, and the attitude of the State and its agencies to a couple of wronged citizens appears to be of a different order. Last month, in correspondence with Chief State Solicitor’s Office, Stephen Murphy received word on how the State regards the judge’s suggestion.
“In relation to the ex gratia payment referred to in your letter and in the comments of Mr Justice Clarke which do not form part of the enclosed order, I do not have instructions to make a payment to you,” states the letter.
In other words, the State, as represented by its law agencies, is confining itself to its obligations under the law, rather than demonstrating that it has a role in the welfare of its citizens.
Despite the conclusion of the legal action, the Murphys continue to be regarded as opponents of the State rather than citizens who were badly served. The suggestion from Judge Clarke — since promoted to Chief Justice — is being treated with disregard, despite it being rooted in the interests of natural justice for citizens.
Stephen Murphy says he finds the outcome of the whole thing highly unsatisfactory: “For 20 years my life was put on hold, my earning power diminished, and then you’ve to put up with the other stuff, people saying ‘That’s your man there, he’s been in trouble with the guards.’
“I look at the difference between how I’ve been treated and how the 14,000 with wrongful convictions on road offences have. At least they got an apology from the guards for what they’d been put through. I’ve got nothing.”
The attitude of the State, as represented by its agencies, to its own citizens in this instance falls little short of contempt. It appears to be informed by the notion that if you take on the State then you will be regarded as the enemy, not as a citizen asserting rights to which all are nominally entitled.