Tributes paid to legal rights campaigner

THE National Women’s Council paid tribute to legal rights campaigner Josie Airey, who died on Monday after a long illness.

In 1979 Ms Airey won an landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights forcing the Government to provide free legal aid for people contesting civil cases.

“That decision will go down in legal history but also in women’s history as well,” said Grainne Healy, the chairwoman of the National Woman’s Council. “It took a huge amount of courage to do something like that in the 70s.”

Airey, 68, spent eight years campaigning for the right to free legal aid to obtain a separation from her husband.

In 1979, the European Court on Human Rights ruled in her favour and ordered the Government to pay £3,140 in damages.

The Airey case was hugely significant. It opened up the legal system for people, not just in Ireland, but in all other European countries covered by the European Court of Human Rights.

Airey came from an ordinary background in Togher, Co Cork. She was married in 1953 and had four children. In 1972, her husband was fined for assaulting her. Later that year, he left the family home and never returned.

Airey tried in vain to get her husband to sign a separation deed. But he refused and She could not afford to take a case to the High Court to obtain a judicial separation. At the time, free legal aid was available for criminal but not civil cases. She took her case to the European Court of Human Rights in 1974 and in 1977 the European Commission decided the case merited a hearing.

Airey began to acquire support for what had been a one-woman crusade. Dublin solicitor Brendan Walsh took on her case and he was helped by former president Mary Robinson, then a senator and a junior barrister.

“She really believed court procedures should be available to every man in the street,” said Mr Walsh, who remembers her as a courageous woman with a sharp brand of humour.

“She was not materialistic at all but she had a cutting edge to her tongue when she needed it,” he said.

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