‘Slopping out’ settlements for prisoners set to cost half of what was expected

Almost three-quarters of 2,272 legal claims have been completed, committee told

The final payout for settling legal claims by prisoners who were forced to ‘slop out’ will be about half the expected cost.

The State has settled the majority of of the cases relating to in-cell sanitation which were lodged following a 2019 Supreme Court ruling that forcing prisoners to use a bucket as a toilet and empty it every morning was a breach of their constitutional rights.

The ruling led to an avalanche of claims and prompted the State Claims Agency (SCA) to put in place an assessment scheme to determine the level of damages each prisoner should receive and avoid the need for court hearings.

A hearing of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee on Thursday heard "significant progress" has been made in finalising the claims.

Department of Justice secretary general Oonagh McPhillips told the committee that 2,772 claims had been made as of 2021 and 2,040 (74 per cent) have been completed.

The SCA initially estimated the State’s liability as being about €30 million. However, the final cost is expected to be in the region of €15 million, the committee heard.

In 2021, €2.3 million was paid out in damages and €1.5 million in legal costs, a total of €3.8 million. The total in 2020 was €3.1 million.

Ms McPhillips said there are specific caps in place for compensation and for legal fees in relation to the scheme.

In coming to its ruling in 2019, the Supreme Court awarded the plaintiff €7,500 for the breach of his rights but said the award should not be seen as a “benchmark” when other cases may differ on the facts.

In 2010, the State began a programme of prison refurbishment with a goal of ending slopping out.

Prisoners are still slopping out in Limerick Prison and part of Portlaoise Prison. Work is ongoing to address this, including the construction of a new prison block in Limerick which is expected to be completed soon.

DNA testing headquarters

Separately, the committee heard the new headquarters for Forensic Science Ireland (FSI), which provides drug and DNA testing to the Garda, is nearing completion and is expected to come online in the second half of this year.

The “state-of-the-art” facility is on track to be completed within a budget of €99.5 million, Ms McPhillips said.

This new facility will be one of the most sophisticated pieces of public infrastructure ever constructed in this country,” she said. It will “provide the hardworking staff of FSI with the highest spec purpose-built facility, achieving the highest standards for evidence processing, analysis and storage.”

FSI currently operates out of a cramped office building at the back of Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park.

Ms McPhillips said the new premises is 79 per cent complete and some of it has already been fitted out. A detailed transition plan has been put in place to ensure the safe transfer of evidence and equipment from one facility to another.

Staff will start moving into the new facility in Backweston, Co Kildare, which is located beside the State laboratory, in the third quarter of 2022.