Ms O’Keeffe, a secretary and mother of two children aged 13 and 11, said she was enormously relieved, having been prepared for the worst.
“It took a few minutes to read it out, and I started wondering first if I was hearing right. I still wouldn’t have any regrets about taking the case and going as far as I have done. It was the first case of its kind, we were going into new territory,” she said.
If she had lost and the state had tried to recoup its costs, she said, it would have affected her children most.
“If they didn’t take my home, anything they would have done would have affected my ability to pay the mortgage,” she said.
The 43-year-old from Dunmanway, Co Cork, failed last December in her appeal against an earlier High Court ruling that the Minister for Education and the state were vicariously liable for the abuse by Leo Hickey, her principal at Dunderrow National School near Kinsale in 1973 when she was eight. The High Court awarded damages of more than €300,000 against Hickey in 2004, but ruled the state had no liability as the school was the principal’s employer.
She appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, where her legal team argued the minister and the state, who paid the salaries of teachers in most schools, had some liability for their actions. While the court rejected that appeal in December, it yesterday gave its reserved judgment on the state’s claim for its costs in the case, estimated at €750,000.
All five judges agreed Ms O’Keeffe should not have to pay the state’s costs as it was a test case on a substantive issue concerning the minister’s liability for sexual assaults on pupils by teachers. An estimated 200 other cases are believed to have been awaiting the outcome on this point of law.
Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe’s spokesperson said as the Supreme Court had made no order for costs, each side would bear its own costs.
“The state will not accordingly be pursuing Ms O’Keeffe for costs. Her own costs are a matter between herself and her legal team.”
One in Four, which provides support to sexual abuse victims, welcomed the ruling but urged Mr O’Keeffe to amend the law so the state assumes full responsibility for the conduct of teachers in schools.