ECtHR says excessive delay in Irish legal system violates Convention

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held that there is no effective remedy under Irish law for complaints about excessive length of proceedings.

The applicant in this case, Vincent Keaney, had a failed business venture. He commenced civil proceedings against 18 investors arising out of transactions during the operation of the business. During this process he made various claims including deceit, fraud, misrepresentation and undue influence. The proceedings, in which the applicant was unsuccessful, were resolved after 11 years.

Relying on Article 6(1) (right to fair trial within a reasonable time) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), the applicant complained that the 11 years it took to resolve these proceedings had not been reasonable and that the delays had been caused by the Irish legal system. He also argued that there was neither an effective remedy in Irish law for excessive length of legal proceedings, nor a mechanism to provide compensation for such delays. This case was chosen by the Court as the lead case in relation to the issue of effective domestic remedies in Ireland for complaints about excessive length of proceedings.

On the Article 6(1) argument, the Court was of the view that the High Court proceedings had been resolved within a reasonable amount time, given the conduct of the applicant. He had instituted proceedings against multiple defendants without properly pleading his case, had failed to lodge proper documentation and serve submissions on time. However, the Court also said that this conduct alone could not justify the length of the proceedings. In their view, some parts of the civil proceedings had been “unreasonably protracted”. His failure to prosecute his appeals before the Supreme Court had been allowed to persist without repercussions until the defendants took action to dismiss them. It took 8 years from the initiation of the appeal until the second appeal was finally dismissed. There was no explanation given as to why this was allowed to happen. The Court found that there had been a violation of Article 6(1). Despite the conduct of the applicant, who had clearly contributed to the delay before the High and Supreme Courts, the length of the proceedings had been excessive.

The applicant also argued that there had been a violation of his Article 13 right to an effective remedy. The Court did not believe that the remedy proposed by the government, an action in damages for breach of the constitutional right to a timely trial, was effective in theory or in practice. Despite recent efforts by the Supreme Court in Nash v DPP to clarify the conditions under which such damages would be granted, it did not address circumstances where it had been decided on the facts of the case that there had been no culpable delay on the part of the State. The Court was also concerned about the speediness of the remedial action itself. There were significant delays at both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. According to the 2018 Court Service Annual Report, the waiting time for ordinary civil appeals was 20 months, while the waiting time from the date of a Supreme Court determination to delivery of judgment was 68 weeks. The Court also noted that another remedy, an application for damages under the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 was only possible if no other remedy was available.

Thus, the Court held that there had been a violation of the applicant’s Article 13 right to an effective remedy, in conjunction with Article 6(1).

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