Sinnott v. Minister for Education [2001] IESC 63; [2001] 2 IR 505 (12th July, 2001)

State’s appeal from Irish High Court decision holding that the Irish Government had a constitutional obligation to provide free primary education to a man with severe mental and physical disabilities as long as he was capable of benefitting from such education.

Date of the Ruling: 
Jul 12 2001
Supreme Court of Ireland
Type of Forum: 

Shortly after the plaintiff, Jamie Sinnott, was born in 1977, doctors discovered he was severely autistic.  For the next 22 years of his life, his mother attempted to provide her son with basic speech, language, and motor skills, as well as toilet-training.  Unfortunately, she discovered that the few institutions for children with severely physically and mentally disabilities in Cork, Ireland did not meet the continuous education needs of her autistic child. In 1997, Mrs. Sinnott filed a claim in the High Court of Ireland alleging the Minister for Education violated her son’s constitutional right to a free primary education, and her right to educate her son under Article 42 of the Constitution, among other claims.  The trial judge found in favor of all claims, holding that the State failed to uphold their constitutional obligation to provide Jamie a free primary education. Citing the conclusion in O’Donoghue v.  Minister of Health & Others [1996], the judge ordered that the State provide such education as long as Jamie was capable of benefiting from it.  The judge additionally held the State violated Mrs. Sinnott’s constitutional rights, and awarded general damages for Jamie’s past and future education and special damages for Mrs. Sinnott’s expenses towards her son’s education.  

The State agreed to pay the damage awards and to provide for Jamie’s education, but appealed to the Supreme Court regarding the issue of whether the State had a constitutional obligation under Article 42 to provide for Jamie’s education into adulthood, i.e. beyond the age of 18 years. (The Irish Constitution does not provide an age-based definition of ‘child’.)  The majority of the Supreme Court found a constitutional violation of Jamie’s right to education before he turned 18. However, the Court also held that only in the most extreme cases would the courts enforce positive obligations on the state. 

Keywords: Sinnott v. Minister for Education [2001] IESC 63; [2001] 2 IR 505 (12th July, 2001), Education, Right

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

The numerous deficiencies in the provision of education of disabled children in Ireland have still not been adequately addressed since this decision. Although this decision did play a part in bringing about the enactment of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004 and the Disability Act 2005, both of which purport to address the educational needs of children with disabilities, both Acts have consistently been criticised by disability activists for their limited nature and for lack of compliance.

Significance of the Case: 

The case was significant in two key respects: (i) the Supreme Court limited the scope of the right to education to the age of 18; and (ii) a majority of the Supreme Court effectively held that only in the most extreme cases would the courts enforce positive obligations on the state.  This decision clearly undermined the prospects for progressive jurisprudence on socio-economic rights under the Irish Constitution.