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John Gilligan loses human rights court challenge

The Court found that the delays in legal proceedings had mainly been down to the Gilligans’ ‘wrong-headed legal tactics’.

File image: John Gilligan leaving Coleraine Magistrates' Court after a district judge dismissed a possession of criminal property charge against him, 2019.
File image: John Gilligan leaving Coleraine Magistrates' Court after a district judge dismissed a possession of criminal property charge against him, 2019.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA

THE EUROPEAN COURT of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that there was no violation of John Gilligan and his family’s right to a fair trial within a reasonable time, and that delays had mainly been down to the family’s “wrong-headed legal tactics”.

Gangland criminal John Gilligan and his family took the case to the EU courts in 2017, relying on Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, complaining that the overall length of proceedings in Irish courts concerning criminal-assets seizures had been “excessive”.

The case concerned the length of several sets of proceedings related to the seizure of the Gilligans’ properties under the Proceeds of Crime Act, 1996, which had included multiple legal manoeuvres by the family through the Supreme and High Courts. 

During the period, there were seven separate originating proceedings, over 88 separate applications, leading to 14 separate reasoned judgments and 29 appeals, according to the ECHR. 

The Criminal Assets Bureau initiated proceedings in 1996 to freeze, with a view to ultimately confiscating, properties belonging to the family. The High Court accepted the evidence that the properties had been bought with earnings from the sale of illegal drugs in 1997, leading to an “interlocutory” (freezing) order.

The family initiated “complex, multi-faceted” proceedings in 2001 while John Gilligan was in prison in the UK having been arrested while carrying £300,000 pounds through Heathrow Airport. He was later extradited from the UK to Ireland, where he was convicted of drugs offences and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. He was released from prison in October 2013.

Gilligan challenged the constitutionality of the Proceeds of Crime Act before the High Court in 1997 and the Supreme Court in 2001, to no avail, and sought to have the freezing order overturned or the proceedings against them struck out by various means. 

During its rejection of Gilligan’s challenge to the freezing order, the Supreme Court court highlighted that the legislation offered several possibilities to correctly challenge a freezing order, and described the excuse that the family had not understood the finality of the freezing order until the High Court ruling of 21 February 2006 as “clearly false”. 

Authorities applied for disposal of the properties in 2004, which was ultimately granted in 2011 following various legal challenges by the applicants and finally upheld by the Supreme Court in 2017. 

The family appealed against three subsequent High Court judgements arguing that the court had lacked jurisdiction to examine the matter and that the proceedings against them had been of excessive duration.

The Supreme Court commented at the time that the Gilligans had slept on their right to challenge the freezing order, “which they should have done promptly”. 

In its ruling today, the ECHR agreed with the Irish courts that the Gilligans’ objective could have been achieved in a more straightforward manner but instead they had “wasted time with wrongheaded procedural tactics”. 

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The Court – which is part of the 47-nation Council of Europe- found that the applicants, through their “vexatious delaying tactics”, had been responsible for the overall duration of the proceedings, in what the Irish courts had found to be “an abuse of process, with the applicants litigating and re-litigating the same issue over and over again”.

“Accordingly, there had been no violation of their rights under this Article.”

The Court was of the view that speeding the proceedings towards a conclusion held little real interest for the Gilligans: “Indeed, their conduct strongly suggested the contrary intention. The Court thus held that it would be inappropriate to examine the question of an effective domestic remedy in the domestic legal order in the present case.”

The ECHR also noted that the applicants had been permitted to live in the properties during the time period, and therefore the length of proceedings had not been unduly prejudicial to them

In December, John Gilligan was released from jail less than two months after his arrest for suspected drugs and weapon offences. The 68-year-old has been banned from leaving Spain and ordered to sign on every fortnight at court as part of his release conditions.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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