State could face hundreds of abuse cases if victim wins European appeal

A European court ruling in Strasbourg this morning could pave the way for hundreds of cases against the Government for abuse of children in schools.

Louise O’Keeffe’s case was heard in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last March and followed the rejection by the High Court and Supreme Court of her claim for damages against the State. She had said it was liable for the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her primary school principal in the early 1970s.

If the ECHR finds in her favour, it could lead to a raft of cases proceeding against the Department of Education for historic abuse cases in ordinary schools, as opposed to the residential institutions where children were placed in care by the State. The department has picked up most of the cost of compensating them through the Residential Institutions Redress Board.

The High Court previously awarded damages of more than €300,000 to Ms O’Keeffe against Leo Hickey, who was sentenced to three years in jail in 1998 after pleading guilty to 21 sample charges in relation to the abuse of her and other pupils at Dunderrow National School near Kinsale, Co Cork. However, the court found that while Mr Hickey was liable for damages, the State was not vicariously liable. This was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008.

The outcome prompted the case being taken to Europe, with papers lodged in 2009 and a full hearing taking place 10 months ago. The case was taken on the grounds of human rights obligations of the State, including the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, right to respect for private life, and right to an effective remedy.

The case was made, as it had been in the Irish courts, that there was an employer-employee relationship between the department and Hickey. Ms O’Keeffe’s legal team said the State failed to provide a proper mechanism for parents to complain to authorities other than school management, and that it discriminated against her by trying to avoid responsibility despite accepting responsibility to compensate children abused in residential institutions.

After successfully defending the case at the High Court, the State was awarded its costs, estimated at €500,000. When the appeal by Ms O’Keeffe failed, the State also sought its costs, but the Supreme Court did not make an award against her — which could otherwise have left her with a bill of around €750,000. That court said the important legal question that had been decided made it a test case for hundreds of others awaiting the outcome.

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