Plenary 4: The Honourable Mr Justice John McMenamin – The Minor List in the High Court: A case study

Mr Justice John McMenamin was in charge of the minor’s list in the High Court for three years. The list evolved in the 1980s in response to holes in the statutory regime. Young persons at risk of suicide, drugs, prostitution, abuse and other exceptional circumstances would be taken out of the custody of their parents but there was no suitable legislative framework at the time, so the minor’s list in the High Court evolved as an important response. Justice McMenamin said an important lesson he learned after taking over the list is that one does not have to reinvent the wheel every time a new judge takes control of the list. Other judges had been dealing with the same issues in the past – shortages of resources, the channelling of cases to court, and the upholding of order, for example. In this paper Justice McMenamin brought attention to the particular kind of difficulties that arise in balancing a youth’s right to liberty and right to life and the benefit of inter-agency discussion and co-operation in trying to arrive at sensible and appropriate solutions to these difficulties. These issues were highlight by means of a case study from the Judge’s experience in managing the Minor’s list.

In this paper he presented a case study, based on the story of an individual he referred to as Shay (not his real name). At 15 Shay found himself before the court – he had no contact with his father, he had been the victim of sexual abuse within the family, he had been assaulted by a neighbour, he suffered from an attachment disorder and had psychological and drug-related problems but he had never been convicted of an offence. He was placed in the centre in Finglas where he did well but once he left Finglas there was a difficulty as to where he could go. The right to liberty militated against him being detained – he could be placed in a unit with youths who had committed offences, but he had not been convicted of any offences; he could have been left free but there was a high risk of suicide; he could be placed in a low security unit but there was a risk he would abscond. Thus the High Court had to come up with some kind of solution that would respect both Shay’s right to liberty and his right to life

Ultimately Justice McMenamin took the unprecedented step of bringing all parties and agencies together to sit down and examine the problems faced in practice and the shortcomings in the system. There was an attempt to work through the issues. The central issue in Shay’s case was whether a long-term order could be made for his detention up to the age of eighteen. The making of long-term orders without review is outside the limits of our constitution. Just as Justice MacMenamin was about to make an order in the case the District Court were also making an order the same day. Shay had two different legal representations. He pointed out that this typifies the need for joined up courts and law and an idea of what is in the best interests of a child. He pointed out that in only 2% of the cases before him parents were represented; it was mainly the state who took an interest in a child. Frequently parents suffered their own problems. Ultimately after balancing out all the issues a decision was made to detain Shay in a high security unit under review.

Justice McMenamin concluded by highlighting some of the lessons that can be learned. Involvement of the courts should be as a last resort. They should be use in an emergency as a means of intervention on the behalf of the state. The duties of parents are correlative to the rights of minors. This is difficult when parents do not want to be responsible. The balancing of libertarian values and the right to life offer difficult problems. He pointed out that there will always be holes in the system, no system is perfect. There is a strong indication that one size does not fit all, the institutions available do not suit all scenarios. Agencies can all interact in a positive manner to intervene where necessary.

Summary provided by LL.M (Criminal Justice) candidate, John Cronin.