New Appeal: When can the Oireachtas provide for mandatory prison terms without trespassing on the judicial function?

In this determination, Ellis v Minister for Justice and Equality & Ors, the Supreme Court granted Ellis leave to appeal challenging the constitutionality of s 27A(8) of the Firearms Act 1964. The Court determined that the case raised the following questions of general public importance:


i) Whether, and in what circumstances, the Oireachtas can provide for mandatory terms of imprisonment without trespassing on the judicial function of administering justice in individual cases;

ii) Whether the ability of the Oireachtas to legislate for fixed penalties is only in breach of the separation of powers where the sentence fixed is disproportionately heavy;

iii) Whether a mandatory term of five years imprisonment in all cases of a second of subsequent offence under Section 27A of the Act is disproportionately heavy.



In the Circuit Court, Ellis pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm contrary to s 27A(1) of the Firearms Act 1964:

27A. — (1) It is an offence for a person to possess or control a firearm F27 [ or ammunition ] in circumstances that give rise to a reasonable inference that the person does not possess or control it for a lawful purpose, unless the person possesses or controls it for such a purpose.

Although Ellis had two previous convictions for carrying a firearm, the Circuit Court imposed a five year prison term, suspended in its entirety.

The DPP appealed the sentence to the Court of Appeal. Imposing a five year custodial sentence, the CoA held that the trial judge was bound by s 27A(8) of the 1964 Act:

(8) Where a person (except a person under the age of 18 years) —

( a ) is convicted of a second or subsequent offence under this section,

( b ) is convicted of a first offence under this section and has been convicted of an offence under section 15 of the Principal Act, section 26, 27 or 27B of this Act or section 12A of the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act 1990,

the court shall, in imposing sentence, specify a term of imprisonment of not less than 5 years as the minimum term of imprisonment to be served by the person.

In 2016, Ellis issued plenary proceedings in the High Court challenging the constitutionality of s. 27A(8). Twomey J dismissed those proceedings.

Following Deaton v The Attorney General and the Revenue Commissioners [1963] IR 170 and Lynch and Whelan v Minister for Justice [2012] 1 IR 1, the CoA upheld the High Court decision.

Ellis applied to the Supreme Court for leave to appeal under Article 34.5.3° of the Constitution.

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