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UN Committee Against Torture delivers landmark admissibility decision
UN Committee Against Torture delivers landmark admissibility decision in case of Elizabeth Coppin v Ireland
The United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) has issued a landmark Admissibility Decision in the case of Elizabeth Coppin v Ireland.
The CAT has found that it has full jurisdiction to decide Elizabeth Coppin’s complaint alleging that Ireland has failed to investigate or to ensure accountability or comprehensive redress for the abuse that she suffered in three of Ireland’s Catholic Church-run ‘Magdalene Laundries’ from 1964 to 1968. Ireland now has four months to respond to the substance of Mrs Coppin’s complaint. The CAT’s Admissibility Decision can be accessed here.
Dr Maeve O’Rourke is a leading member of the legal team that filed the Individual Communication with the CAT in July 2018. She has advocated for many years before international and domestic human rights bodies regarding Ireland’s obligations to ensure accountability and comprehensive reparation, including truth-telling and guarantees of non-recurrence, in relation to the Magdalene Laundries and similar systematic institutional and gender-based abuses in Ireland. Dr O’Rourke co-directs the award-winning voluntary evidence-gathering and advocacy initiative in partnership with Hogan Lovells LLP, ‘Clann: Ireland’s Unmarried Mothers and their Children: Gathering the Data’. In December 2019 she convened a preliminary workshop at the Irish Centre for Human Rights examining the need and potential legislative basis for a national archive of historical care-related records. Read more about this initiative here. Several of the current projects in the ICHR’s LLM Human Rights Law Clinic focus on issues of access to information and truth-telling regarding Ireland’s legacy of social care-related abuse.
Grounds of Mrs Coppin’s substantive complaint
Elizabeth Coppin’s Individual Communication contends that Ireland has been on notice for decades that torture and ill-treatment occurred in Magdalene Laundries and that Mrs Coppin was so abused.
The complaint draws attention to the State’s extensive involvement with the Magdalene Laundries between 1922 and 1996, and to Elizabeth Coppin’s vulnerability as a child who had been removed from her family in infancy and detained in an Industrial School, where she was subjected to vicious assault and prolonged neglect, prior to her transfer to a Magdalene Laundry aged 14.
The complaint describes Elizabeth Coppin’s extreme suffering while she was involuntarily detained in three Magdalene Laundries and forced into constant, unpaid work in commercial laundry operations. Mrs Coppin states that in St Vincent’s Magdalene Laundry, Peacock Lane, she slept in a cell bolted from the outside with bars on the window. She states that throughout her detention she was denied any education and was ritually humiliated and denigrated, including through a prohibition on speaking, the imposition of a new name which was that of her tormentor from the Industrial School, and lack of access to adequate food, warmth and sanitation. Mrs Coppin recalls being subjected to punishments including solitary confinement, and states that for years she never knew if or when she would be released and feared that she would die in detention and be buried in a mass grave.
Elizabeth Coppin’s Individual Communication alleges continuing violations of the following provisions of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), which Ireland ratified in 2002:
- Article 12 of the Convention, alone and in conjunction with Article 16, on the basis that Ireland has never held a prompt and impartial investigation into the complaints of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment in the Magdalene Laundries. Mrs Coppin’s complaints to the police have not been investigated and Ireland has refused to establish the statutory investigation into systematic abuse in the Magdalene Laundries that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has been calling for since 2010. The only official investigation into the Magdalene Laundries was conducted by an Inter- Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen laundries, established in 2011. This Inter- Departmental Committee was not independent of the Government and had no mandate or powers to investigate allegations of human rights violations. Ireland’s official position is that there is no factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill treatment of a criminal nature in the Magdalene Laundries, and that in the absence of such evidence it does not propose to set up a specific Magdalene inquiry or investigation. Furthermore, despite the findings of the Inter-Departmental Committee, Ireland continues to insist that the Magdalene Laundries were institutions of a private nature and that the State has no liability in the matter.
- Article 13 of the Convention, alone and in conjunction with Article 16, on the basis that Ireland has failed to ensure that Mrs Coppin and other survivors of the Magdalene Laundries have the right to complain to and have their cases examined by the competent authorities. Her complaints to the police have not been investigated. The civil proceedings she brought against the religious orders in 1999 were dismissed on the grounds that the passage of time meant that the nuns would not receive a fair trial. No other mechanism of complaint or examination is available to her domestically. On the contrary, the State has forced her to sign waivers of her rights of action against the State and the relevant religious congregations in exchange for receiving ex gratia payments from the State.
- Article 14 of the Convention, alone and in conjunction with Article 16, on the basis that Ireland has failed to ensure that Mrs Coppin and other survivors of the Magdalene Laundries can obtain full redress for the violations suffered, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible. In February 2013, the Taoiseach issued an official apology to women who had spent time in Magdalene Laundries, including Mrs Coppin, “for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered”. Following the apology, the State established a scheme to make financial awards and confer other benefits on survivors of the Magdalene Laundries on an ex gratia basis. Mrs Coppin accepted a financial award under the Scheme. However, the Scheme did not constitute full redress as described in the Committee’s General Comment No 3. The Scheme acknowledged no liability on the part of the religious congregations or the State and awards were contingent on waiver of all rights of action against the State. Moreover, Ireland has not honoured its representations to Mrs Coppin and to other survivors regarding several of the rehabilitative and restorative measures on offer under the Scheme.
- Article 16 of the Convention, on the basis that Ireland’s failures and the resulting impunity of the State and relevant religious congregations constitute an affirmation by Ireland, by act and by clear implication, of Mrs Coppin’s treatment in the Magdalene Laundries. Mrs Coppin complains that this deliberate affirmation debases and humiliates her in a manner so severe as to amount to at least degrading treatment. In effect, Mrs Coppin complains that she is experiencing a ‘continuing situation’ of dignity violations sufficient to violate Article 16, commencing with her treatment in the Magdalene Laundries and continuing on account of the State’s treatment of her since that time.
Admissibility arguments and decision
Arguing against the admissibility of the Individual Communication, Ireland maintained that the CAT lacked temporal jurisdiction over Elizabeth Coppin’s complaint because the complaint ‘raises issues that relate to a period prior to the entry into force of the Convention for the State party’.
Ireland further argued that Elizabeth Coppin had failed to exhaust domestic remedies because she had not complained domestically about the State’s alleged failure to investigate or provide redress; rather, her complaints to the police in 1997 and 1998, and her attempted civil proceedings in 1999, were concerned with the substantive abuse in the Magdalene Laundries, and happened prior to Ireland’s ratification of the Convention. Ireland acknowledged that it had required Mrs Coppin to sign a waiver of her legal rights against the State and had therefore barred her from bringing civil proceedings, as a condition of receiving ex gratia payments from two prior schemes for survivors of Industrial Schools and Magdalene Laundries (in 2005 and 2014 respectively). However, Ireland argued, ‘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 its Admissibility Decision delivered on 20 January 2020, the CAT found Elizabeth Coppin’s Individual Communication to be admissible in full, for reasons including that:
- ‘The Committee can examine alleged violations of procedural obligations under the Convention that occurred before a State party’s ratification or accession to the Convention or recognition of the Committee’s competence through its declaration under article 22, and of other obligations that have similar legal effect under the Convention.’ (para 6.3)
- ‘A State party can violate article 14 of the Convention, which requires States parties to ensure that victims of torture obtain redress, through a failure to investigate, criminally prosecute, or to allow civil proceedings related to allegations of acts of torture.’ (para 6.4)
- Mrs Coppin’s Individual Communication alleges that Ireland has affirmed its violations of Articles 12, 13 and 14 UNCAT on many occasions since the entry into force of the Convention for the State party and its declaration under article 22. (para 6.5)
- ‘The waivers signed by the complainant as a condition of participation in two domestic ex gratia schemes cannot alleviate the State party of its obligation to investigate allegations of continuing violations of the Convention brought to its attention, including the procedural aspects of the right to justice and to the truth (general comment No. 3, paras 16-17), and they do not impair the complainant’s right to bring an otherwise admissible communication to the attention of this Committee.’ (para 6.7)
Elizabeth Coppin’s legal team comprises Wendy Lyon, Solicitor, Abbey Law, supported by Hogan Lovells International LLP; and barristers Michael Lynn SC, Colin Smith BL, Lewis Mooney BL, Dr Maeve O’Rourke (Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway & 33 Bedford Row, London) and Jennifer MacLeod BL (Brick Court Chambers, London).
Elizabeth Coppin was invited to speak at the Oxford Union in May 2019 about her experiences in the Magdalene Laundries and her decades-long search for justice. The recording of Mrs Coppin’s speech is available here:
Media interviews with Elizabeth Coppin and further coverage of her Individual Communication to the CAT include:
- Kitty Holland, ‘Magdalene survivor: ‘It feels like Ireland is abusing us again’ The Irish Times (17 February 2020)
- Kitty Holland, ‘Magdalene survivor’s UN case of key importance, lawyer says’ The Irish Times (17 February 2020)
- Kitty Holland, ‘Magdalene survivor takes case to UN torture committee’ The Irish Times (17 February 2020)
- Elizabeth Coppin, Newstalk Radio, The Pat Kenny Show (17 February 2020)
- Maeve O’Rourke, RTE News, Six One News (17 February 2020)
- Rónán Duffy, ‘The door to her cell was bolted’: Magdalene survivor takes case against Ireland to UN’ Thejournal.ie (17 February 2020)
- Jess Casey, ‘Irish woman forbidden to speak during time at Cork Magdalene Laundry takes case to UN torture committee’ The Irish Examiner (17 February 2020)
- Allison Bray, ‘Survivor of Magdalene Laundries to have her case heard by UN torture probe’ The Irish Independent (18 February 2020)
- Elizabeth Coppin, BBC Radio, Outlook, ‘Confronting the Nun Who Despised Me’ (14 November 2018)
- Ed O’Loughlin, ’50 Years Later, a Victim of Ireland’s ‘Laundries’ Fights for Answers’ The New York Times (26 October 2018)