Bid to stop victims of abuse from suing State

The State wants the High Court to strike out a decision it can be sued, along with the Christian Brothers, by three alleged sexual abuse victims, following a European court ruling in the landmark Louise O’Keeffe case.

In January 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that, under the European Convention, the rights of Ms O’Keeffe from Cork had been breached by the failure of the State to protect her from abuse by her school teacher, Leo Hickey, in the 1970s. Ms O’Keeffe, 48, had previously lost High Court and Supreme Court cases, which found the State could not be held vicariously, or separately, liable for the abuse, as the school was not operated and managed directly by the State, but by an independent board of management.

Ms O’Keeffe, who won her action against the abuser, argued the State, as the payer of the teacher’s salary, and supervisor of other matters related to the school, was also responsible.

Following the European Court decision, three men, who had damages actions pending against teachers and two Christian Brothers’ schools where they taught, successfully applied to have the minister for education and the State joined as defendants in their cases.

The state parties yesterday asked Mr Justice Seamus Noonan to strike out an order joining them in the case on grounds that included the European court decision had no impact on Irish law or these men’s cases.

The decision to join the State was made in September 2014 by the Master of the High Court, who deals with cases on their way to trial. It was done on an ex-parte basis, with only the men represented, but not the State, and should be set aside by the High Court, said state counsel Eoin McCullough.

Ms O’Keeffe’s rights under 2003 European Convention on Human Rights Act had been found by the European court to have been breached, but counsel said, as a matter of general principle, the substance of this Act only binds Ireland at an international level and there was no domestic requirement . The 2003 Act introduced the European Convention into domestic law in a limited way, but it did not have a retrospective effect, he said. Unless there is some change in Irish law there was no right to sue the State.

The evidence in the three cases before the court was the alleged abuse occurred in Christian Brothers’ schools in the south west in the 1960s and 1970s. The three complainants, now in their 50s and 60s, brought legal proceedings against the alleged abusers and the Christian Brothers order. Two of the cases were initiated in 2008 and 2010, while a third was in 2012.

Mr McCullough said the cases against the State defendants should be struck out, because they were clearly statute barred.

Mark Harty SC, for one of the men, said his client had brought his case within the two-year time limit and it was evidently not statute barred. It was also not unstateable or vexatious, because it was based on a finding of the European court that Ireland had breached Ms O’Keeffe’s convention rights, he said.

The case continues.


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