The Northern Ireland Prison Service was bracing itself today for a flood of inmates demanding immediate release after a court found a serial burglar was being wrongfully detained under new prison rules.
Two High Court judges ordered the release of career criminal Anthony Montgomery after his legal team argued that the release policy introduced earlier this year by prison chiefs, without consultation with the justice agencies, was wrong.
The ruling could now see the prison service forced to release scores of inmates within the next few weeks with many potentially entitled to sue for wrongful imprisonment.
A barrister for the Prison Service warned that the ruling could affect a “significant” number of prisoners.
Under the new release policy, which was introduced by prison chiefs in July, Montgomery was being made to serve two sentences consecutively, even though this had not been stipulated by the court. This rule can significantly lengthen a prisoner’s jail term without the authority of a magistrate or judge.
The 41-year-old, formerly from Cromwell Street in Belfast, was jailed earlier this year for burglary and breach of a probation order. Under old rules he should have been released on
October 8. The Prison Service however refused to release him saying that under the new rules he was not due for release until the middle of December.
His legal team from McCann and McCann Solicitors applied to the High Court in Belfast to issue a writ of Habeas corpus — a writ which requires a person detained by the authorities be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined — and a Judicial Review of the prison policy.
On Wednesday, High Court Judges Mr Justice Higgins and Mr Justice Girvan agreed that Montgomery had been wrongfully detained.
However they have not yet released a full judgment detailing their reasons for ordering his release.
The Prison Service said it is waiting for that judgment before speculating on the full impact of the ruling.
A barrister for the Prison Service told the court however that this will have “a collateral impact on a significant other number of prisoners.”
He added: “We anticipate others will follow.
“We anticipate there may be some difficulties and pressing matters.”
Montgomery’s legal team has also applied for compensation. The amount will be decided on a later date.
His solicitor, Garrett Greene from McCann and McCann said: “We will reserve formal comment until we receive written judgment in the case, however this is a landmark case with huge ramifications within this jurisdiction. The Prison Service introduced its own system for calculating prisoners’ release date which had the effect of extending periods of time in custody. We challenged the lawfulness of the new policy and our client has been released on foot of this.”
He added: “The Prison Service has no role in the sentencing of prisoners or in imposing additional terms of imprisonment. This is the role of the courts and courts alone.”
A spokesman for the Prison Service said: “Anthony Montgomery a prisoner in Maghaberry Prison has been released from Maghaberry Prison in accordance with the determination of the court.
“The Prison Service must await the reasons for this decision to ascertain if the judgement has wider implications.”