Supreme Court: Convicted rapist entitled to €10,000 compensation in respect of pension benefit withheld while imprisoned
A man who was convicted on several counts of serious offences including rape is entitled to receive €10,000 compensation after the statutory provision which allowed his state pension to be withheld was declared unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court said that he was not automatically entitled to damages as a result of the finding of unconstitutionality, but that he should be entitled to recover the sum withheld from him as a benefit to which he was entitled.
The appellant, PC, spent most of his life living and working in the State and made sufficient contributions to render him eligible for the State Pension Contributory (SPC).
In 2006, PC began receiving the SPC, however, in 2011, PC was convicted on several counts relating to serious offences, including rape, committed against a family member and sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment, with a release date anticipated in 2020.
Pursuant to s.249 (1) of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, the Minister for Social Protection ceased payment of the SPC from the date of his detention in prison.
In the Supreme Court in July 2017, Mr Justice John MacMenamin said that the impugned provision was originally intended to be punitive in purpose, and while its purpose was to avoid unjust enrichment, its true effect was punitive, retributive, indiscriminate, and disproportionate. As such, the prohibition on the payment of the SPC to sentenced persons constituted an additional punishment not imposed by a court dealing with an offender.
Mr Justice MacMenamin found that the effect of the provision was contrary to the separation of powers principle, and stated that the prohibition on payment amounted to an additional non-judicial punishment which contravened Articles 34 and 38 of the Constitution.
Stating that as a result of the decision, a sentencing court would be able to consider future social welfare payments as a source of compensation for victims, Mr Justice MacMenamin adjourned the matter directed that counsel make submissions on the question of remedy.
In the present judgment, the Supreme Court dealt with the issue of remedy. In the leading judgment of the five-judge Court, Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell was satisfied that the mere finding of unconstitutionality did not give rise per se to a claim for damages and that PC’s claim for damages, made on that basis, must fail.
While stating that the argument that damages arose automatically on a finding of invalidity was erroneous, and that this might be enough to resolve the case, Mr Justice O’Donnell said that in the interests of completeness it was necessary to address the other possible bases for a claim canvassed in the course of argument.
One such argument was that since the consequence of the declaration was to remove the only legislative prohibition on receipt of the benefit, PC should be entitled to recover the sum which was withheld from him, not as damages but rather as a benefit to which he was entitled.
Mr Justice O’Donnell said that it was not “unduly punctilious to point out that the case was not pleaded, or put, in this way”, that instead PC “simply claimed consequential damages”, and that “in the circumstances of this case, and the blunt and absolutist basis of the appellant’s claim, it would not perhaps be unjust to dismiss the appellant’s claim for damages as pleaded, and leave any possible claim to entitlement to benefit to be explored, if at all, in further proceedings by the appellant, and any other person”.
However, Justice O’Donnell said that “given the rather torturous course this litigation has taken”, it was desirable to resolve the matter.
Finding that the case bore “some comparison with the facts of Murphy v. Attorney General  I.R. 241”, Mr Justice O’Donnell said that in terms of the recovery of benefits unpaid for the period while the s. 249(1) of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 was in force, he said that PC would be entitled to be paid benefits, limited to a period approximating to the time taken in these proceedings.
Noting that PC had already been paid €7,500 in damages by the State authorities, Mr Justice O’Donnell said that PC was entitled to receive a total of €10,000 including the original payment.
While agreeing with “substantial areas” of Mr Justice O’Donnell’s judgment, Mr Justice MacMenamin said that he was not persuaded that PC’s rights or the State respondent’s conduct were comparable to that in Murphy.
© Irish Legal News Ltd 2019