UN Torture Committee delivers preliminary judgement against Ireland, deciding to hear Magdalene Laundries case in full

Dublin, 17 February 2020 – As part of its involvement in the Clann Project, Hogan Lovells’ pro bono practice welcomes the landmark Admissibility Decision before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in the case of Elizabeth Coppin v Ireland. The committee will, for the first time, hear a Magdalene’s survivor case. The investigation could have significant implications for the State’s approach to historical abuse. Hogan Lovells is part of a team of international and Irish lawyers led by Dr Maeve O'Rourke who worked on the application.

The Committee will have full jurisdiction to decide Mrs Coppin’s complaint regarding Ireland’s failure to investigate and ensure accountability for the abuse of girls and women in Magdalene Laundries between 1922 and 1996.

Speaking from her home in the UK after receiving the UN Committee’s preliminary judgment, Elizabeth Coppin said: “I feel grateful UNCAT are taking my complaint seriously and it gives me hope I may one day see light from this darkness emerging.”

Yasmin Waljee OBE, International Pro Bono Director at Hogan Lovells, said: "This is a significant decision. Importantly for the CLANN project on Mother and Baby Homes, the issue of opening records which could explain how the abuses happened, which is integral to the duty to investigate violations of human rights by States.”

The decision is available here.

Background to the case

Ireland argued that the Committee should not entertain the case because Mrs Coppin was detained in the Magdalene Laundries before Ireland became a party to the UN Convention Against Torture in 2002. The Committee found, however, that Mrs Coppin’s complaints relate to events that have continued since 2002, over which the Committee has jurisdiction.

Ireland further argued that Mrs Coppin should be barred from bringing her complaint to the UN’s attention because she had not first complained to the Irish courts about the State’s failure to investigate and ensure redress. Ireland acknowledged that it had required Mrs Coppin to waive her legal rights against the State as a precondition to receiving ‘ex gratia’ financial payments from the Residential Institutions Redress Board and Magdalene Laundries scheme (in 2005 and 2014, respectively). However, Ireland contended, ‘the redress schemes operated on an entirely voluntary basis and she had an option to refuse the awards and bring proceedings before domestic courts’.

In response, the Committee’s judgment states: ‘Collective reparation and administrative reparation programmes may not render ineffective the individual right to a remedy and to obtain redress, including an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, and that judicial remedies must always be available to victims, irrespective of what other remedies may be available.’

The UN Committee Against Torture process

Elizabeth Coppin lodged an Individual Communication with the Committee Against Torture in July 2018. The Individual Communication procedure is somewhat similar to court proceedings in that the complainant submits legal arguments and evidence, including witness statements, and following a period of replies between the State Defendant and the complainant, the Committee Against Torture issues a written judgment.

In this case, the Committee Against Torture decided to judge the admissibility of the complaint before making a full judgment on the merits. The Committee has now given Ireland four months to make further submissions on the merits of Mrs Coppin’s complaint. Mrs Coppin will have the opportunity to reply, following which the Committee will issue a final written judgment.

Mrs Coppin’s complaints, which the Committee will now adjudicate in full

Elizabeth Coppin complains that Ireland is refusing to investigate her allegations of torture and ill-treatment in three Magdalene Laundries between 1964 and 1968. She went to the police in 1997 and 1998, but her grievances were never followed up. She attempted to sue the religious congregations involved between 1999 and 2002, but her case was dismissed on grounds of ‘delay’. Mrs Coppin complains that the Irish State is now refusing to allow her to access any of the evidence gathered by the McAleese Committee, the Governmental body that produced a report on state involvement with the Magdalene Laundries in 2013. Meanwhile, Mrs Coppin argues, the State is degrading her by continuing to state publicly (through the comments of both civil servants and Government representatives) that there is ‘no factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill treatment of a criminal nature in these institutions’.

Mrs Coppin argues that she has not received the full healthcare promised by the Irish Government under the ‘ex gratia’ Magdalene Laundries scheme. She also contends that the State is failing to meet its obligation to conduct a memorialisation or truth-telling process that educates the public in order to prevent repetition of similar abuses.

Mrs Coppin’s background

Elizabeth Coppin was born in 1949 in a County Home, as her mother was unmarried. She was detained by court order in an Industrial School at the age of two. When she reached 14, the nuns in charge of the Industrial School transferred her to St Vincent’s Magdalene Laundry in Peacock Lane, Cork. Mrs Coppin was detained in two further Magdalene Laundries before being released just prior to her 19th birthday, in April 1968.

Mrs Coppin states that her living conditions in St Vincent’s Magdalene Laundry were prison-like. She slept in a cell bolted from the outside, and there were bars on her window. She was forbidden to speak and was denied any education. Mrs Coppin complains that she was forced to work without pay six days a week in all three of the Magdalene Laundries and that Ireland was complicit in her arbitrary detention and mistreatment.

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