European Court criticises UK government over handling of Northern Ireland prison death

James McDonnell died in Maghaberry Prison in March 1996

James McDonnell died in Maghaberry Prison in March 1996

By Niall McCracken

The European Court of Human Rights has criticised the UK Government over “excessive delay” in investigating the death of a man in Northern Ireland’s Maghaberry prison more than 17 years ago.

In March 1996 James McDonnell from Antrim died of a heart attack after being restrained by prison wardens in the jail.

It took over 17 years for the case to be heard at inquest, where a jury eventually found that the neck injury suffered by Mr McDonnell during the altercation led to stress that contributed to his fatal heart attack later that day.

The court of human rights has in the past criticised the British government’s handling of controversial deaths directly linked to the Troubles, but it is noted that this case is unrelated to the decades of conflict.

Today’s landmark ruling found that there were a number of delays attributable to authorities which were “not justified”.

The court said it considered it “striking that Mr McDonnell died in March 1996 and that the inquest proper did not begin until April 2013, more than seventeen years later.”

James McDonnell’s mother Elizabeth was awarded €10,000 in damages and €8,000 in costs.

Speaking to The Detail about today’s ruling she said said: “I welcome the decision today, but you can’t turn back the clock.

“Years of waiting and wondering if my son’s case would ever make it to an inquest took its toll on my family.

“In the period after Jim died, I suffered my own health problems and found it very hard to move on.

“So the judgment today doesn’t make those scars go away, but it’s something.”

The Detail previously reported on the inquest findings of James McDonnell’s death in custody.

Today’s judgement comes after Elizabeth McDonnell lodged a case against the UK Government in 2011 claiming that it had failed to meet its obligations under Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The family’s solicitor Padraig Ó Muirigh took the case to Europe on the basis that the excessive delay in the inquest proceedings meant that the state had not fulfilled its investigative obligation in respect of the death in custody of James McDonnell.

The European court’s judgment today concluded there were a number of delays which it considered attributable to the authorities which are not justified.

It stated: “In conclusion, whatever the individual responsibility, or lack of responsibility, of those public officials involved in the investigation process, these delays cannot be regarded as compatible with the State’s obligation under Article 2 to ensure the effectiveness of investigations into suspicious deaths, in the sense that the investigative process, however, it be organised under national law, must be commenced promptly and carried out with reasonable expedition.

“To this extent, the foregoing finding of excessive investigative delay, of itself, entails the conclusion that the investigation was ineffective for the purposes of Article 2 of the Convention.

“There has, accordingly, been a violation of Article 2 under its procedural aspect by reason of excessive investigative delay.”