Hep C victims to wait for compo ruling

HEPATITIS C victims must wait to find out if they can appeal compensation tribunal awards to the High Court in a legal challenge that could leave the State open to multi-million euro claims.

The Supreme Court yesterday reserved judgment on a test case to determine whether the High Court was correct last year in deciding that a man who accepted an award from the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal could belatedly appeal that award to the High Court.

The outcome of the case is awaited by other hepatitis C victims, who similarly accepted awards from the tribunal in the past but now say the sums they received were not sufficient.

The test case, backed by the Irish Haemophilia Society, relates to a man who contracted hepatitis C from infected blood products and who was awarded compensation of £125,000 by the tribunal in late 1997.

He signed off on the payment, without availing of the one-month grace period for deciding whether the award was acceptable or lodging an appeal with the High Court.

Other patients who rejected their awards and appealed to the High Court within the one-month period have seen their compensation payments significantly increased.

In 2001, half the compensation paid out by the tribunal went to claimants who sought higher awards in the High Court.

The tribunal has paid out almost €300 million to date, but this would increase substantially if the remaining claimants also gained the right to appeal.

In April 1999, the unnamed man challenged the restrictions that applied in his case in an application to the High Court and he got a ruling in his favour from Mr Justice O’Neill last July. In the Supreme Court yesterday, both the minister for health and children and the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal appealed this ruling.

Denis McDonald SC, for the minister, said it was accepted persons who contracted hepatitis C from infected blood products were entitled to compensation, but if people sought compensation under the Hepatitis C Tribunal Compensation Act of 1997, they were subject to the conditions of the Act.

He argued the 1997 Act was clear and should be literally interpreted. It allowed one month to appeal, but when this claimant accepted his award in November 1997, no indication was given that he was unhappy with it or that he would like to appeal.

Donal O’Donnell SC, for the tribunal, said the High Court had failed to interpret the words of the legislation and instead speculated on the intention of the Oireachtas in relation to the hepatitis C compensation scheme.

The purpose of the 1997 Act was not just to compensate hepatitis C victims, he said. It was also intended to deal with the administrative problem which loomed due to the volume of claims by victims who, in the absence of the Act, would otherwise have proceeded to the High Court.

Opposing the appeal, Richard Nesbitt SC, for the claimant, said the court should look to the essential purpose of the 1997 Act which was to provide “just” and “appropriate’ compensation for loss suffered. If the literal meaning of the Act did not accord with that purpose, the court should look beyond it, he said.

If there were a number of possible interpretations, the court should take the one which reflected the essential purpose of the Act. The five-judge court, presided over by Ms Justice Denham, is thought likely to deliver its decision some time next month.

The Irish Haemophilia Society was confident yesterday that last year’s High Court ruling would be upheld but said the wait for the Supreme Court’s decision was frustrating. “We are confident our case will stand,” it said.

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