Louise O'Keeffe: 40-year fight for justice could cost State millions

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in favour of a woman sexually abused in primary school could cost the State millions in follow-on claims.

It could also have major implications for the country’s education system.

Louise O’Keeffe’s 40-year battle for justice ended in triumph when the court [url=http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng/Pages/search.aspx#{%22languageisocode%22:[%22ENG%22],%22documentcollectionid2%22:[%22JUDGMENTS%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-140235%22]}]ruled[/url] in her favour and granted her compensation of more than €100,000 for abuse she suffered as a child at Dunderrow National School, Kinsale, Co Cork.

Ms O’Keeffe, a mother of two, said the judgment was a “win for the children of Ireland”.

There are already 135 cases pending against the State by other victims of sexual abuse and many more may follow as a result of yesterday’s ruling in Strasbourg.

In a statement, a spokes-woman for the Department of Education acknowledged that the ruling was binding on the State. “It will now be assessed for its implications and the necessary steps to implement the decision of the ECHR will be pursued.”

The court overruled the 2008 decision of the Supreme Court which found the State bore no responsibility for the activities of Ms O’Keefe’s abuser, lay principal Leo Hickey.

Ernest Cantillon, Ms O’Keeffe’s solicitor, said the State should now “do the right thing” and open discussions with other survivors of sexual abuse.

“Other victims were warned of the ramifications of pursuing their cases in the light of the Supreme Court judgment. They wrote to all of these victims threatening them with an order for costs if they didn’t withdraw their cases. They should do the right thing now… and invite them to meet for negotiations.”

In the judgment delivered at a public hearing, the court ruled that it was an inherent obligation on a Government to use special safeguards to protect children from ill-treatment, especially in primary education when they are under the exclusive control of school authorities.

A State could not absolve itself from that obligation by delegating to private bodies or individuals.

State school inspectors did not perform that function as they were not obliged to monitor a teacher’s treatment of children, only the quality of instruction and academic performance.

“This judgment has profound implications for the State education system,” said Des Hogan, acting chief executive of the Irish Human Rights Commission.

“The manner in which the human rights of children and parents are reflected and vindicated by the State will now need careful review given the court’s findings on the absence of effective civil remedies under article 13 of the convention.”

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