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UN Committee on the Convention against Torture holds Magdalene woman’s complaint against Ireland admissible


The UN Committee on the Convention against Torture in Geneva (the “Committee”) has dismissed arguments made by Ireland that complaints made by a victim of the Magdalene Laundries to the Committee were inadmissible.

Elizabeth Coppin was incarcerated and subjected to forced labour in three Magdalene Laundries from 1964 to 1968, from the ages of 14-18.  Following repeated attempts to bring her case to court in Ireland, she communicated a complaint to the Committee in 2018 (which was covered by the New York Times here). 

Her complaint alleges a number of failures by the Irish state, including that it has:

  1. failed to conduct a prompt and impartial investigation into her treatment (under Article 12);
  2. vitiated her right to complain to, and have her case promptly and impartially examined by, competent authorities (under Article 13);
  3. failed to provide her with adequate redress (under Article 14); and
  4. affirmed and compounded her suffering such that she continues to suffer a violation of her dignity (under Article 16). 

Ireland objected to the admissibility of Mrs Coppin’s complaint under article 22 of the Convention against Torture, putting forward a raft of arguments pursuant to which, it said, the Committee did not have jurisdiction.  Those arguments included arguments that the complaint was inadmissible:  

  1. ratione temporis, as it related to matters occurring prior to the ratification of the Convention;
  2. ratione temporis, as any continuing violations were interlinked with the substantive breach of the rights occurring prior to the ratification of the Convention;. 
  3. as Mrs Coppin had not exhausted her domestic remedies, in particular because Mrs Coppin had signed a waiver precluding her from bringing proceedings in order to secure an ex gratia payment; and
  4. on the basis that it referred to the position of other survivors of abuse in the Magdalene Laundries.

As reported today in the Irish Times, the Committee has, following submissions from the parties, rejected Ireland’s submissions in their entirety.  Its decision affirms the rights of victims of historic abuse to bring cases before international treaty bodies where insufficient action has taken place following the ratification of the relevant conventions. Of particular note is the Committee’s conclusion that a domestic waiver to secure payment cannot preclude victims of torture and ill-treatment from accessing international mechanisms of justice.

The preliminary version of the Committee’s views can be found on Hogan Lovells’ website here.  Press coverage of the decision and interviews with Mrs Coppin can be found here and here.

Jennifer MacLeod is instructed by Abbey Law (with assistance from Hogan Lovells) as junior counsel for Mrs Coppin.