The Court of Appeal (CoA) has overturned a decision to strike out Peter Pringle's damages claim against the State over his conviction and the 15 years he spent behind bars for crimes he did not commit.
Mr Pringle was convicted for the murders of two gardaí, John Morley and Henry Byrne, during a bank robbery in Ballaghadreen, Co Roscommon in July 1980.
He was released from prison after his convictions were deemed unsafe and quashed in 1995.
The High Court had struck out a damages claim he brought over his conviction and lengthy incarceration on the grounds of inordinate and inexcusable delay in progressing his claim.
A three-judge court overturned the High Court decision on the basis that a key legal issue in the case that needed to be determined had not been addressed. His claim will now return to the High Court for consideration.
Mr Pringle who is based in Glenicmurrin Costelloe, Co Galway was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of the gardaí.
In proceedings brought against the State, he claims it was negligent and breached his constitutional rights because crucial evidence was not disclosed to him prior to his trial before the Special Criminal Court.
After his death sentence was commuted to 40 years in jail, he served 14 years and 10 months in prison, before the then-Court of Criminal Appeal in 1995 found his convictions to be unsafe and unsatisfactory.
Two other men were convicted of the murders and were released from prison in 2013.
In 2019, following an application by the State, the High Court dismissed Mr Pringle's damages action, which originated in the 1990s, on the grounds of inordinate and inexcusable delay.
The State successfully argued it would be prejudiced by the fact that many relevant witnesses would not be available due to death and untraceability. Mr Pringle appealed that decision to the CoA.
In its judgement on Wednesday, the COA, comprised of Ms Justice Una Ní Raifeartaigh, Ms Justice Ann Power and Mr Justice Donald Binchy, set aside the High Court's earlier decision and remitted it back to the High Court.
Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh said the case was not straightforward and there was “a difficult and key legal issue at the heart of the application”.
The question raised was whether the State would be legally entitled to use evidence with a view to establishing the appellant’s involvement in the events in 1980, which was the subject of the criminal trial and in respect of which his conviction was quashed.
Mr Pringle, the judge said, maintains that the presumption of innocence prevents the State from doing so; while the State maintains that it does not.
This in turn is "highly relevant" to the prejudice alleged by the State because it contends that it requires a large pool of witnesses to defend itself and that many of those witnesses are no longer available by reason of the appellant’s delay, Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh said.
The dispute as to the proper parameters of the damages claim had rendered the exercise of adjudicating upon this appeal considerably more complex than first thought, the judge said.
The judge added the CoA accepted the High Court's finding that Mr Pringle was responsible for inordinate and inexcusable delay in progressing his proceedings. However, she said a key legal issue in the case must be determined before the prejudice asserted by the State can be properly assessed.
This key legal issue is the precise scope of the issues in the case having regard to the presumption of innocence and the extent to which it may or may not limit the State in terms of how they present their defence to the appellant’s claim.
This important issue was not squarely before the High Court or the CoA, she said, adding it is something of considerable complexity which the court did not consider it appropriate to rule upon it, given the way it arose.
The CoA could not rule definitively on this issue, the judge said, adding that the court was hampered in assessing the degree of prejudice claimed.
Given the degree of uncertainty surrounding these key matters, together with the serious and unique nature of the case, the CoA did not consider that the balance of justice was to dismiss the proceedings now.
In such circumstances, the judge said it was setting aside the High Court’s decision and remitted it back to the High Court for fresh consideration, after certain events have taken place.
The case should proceed before the High Court clarifying the scope of Mr Pringle's damages proceedings, the judge said.
In addition, the High Court must make a ruling on whether the State are entitled to put the appellant’s guilt in issue in the proceedings, including related matters such as the burden of proof.
It was a matter for the High Court and the parties to choose the appropriate mechanisms by which they think these issues can be addressed, the CoA concluded.