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Redress of Survivors of Sexual Abuse in National School

Louise O'Keefe Hearing ECtHR Strasbourg

The Child Law Clinic has successfully advocated for 10 years for redress for survivors of sexual abuse in National Schools. This has been a multi-faceted project, which included supporting a successful application to the European Court of Human Rights in the Louise O’Keeffe case in 2014; making submissions to a number of official bodies concerning the State’s implementation of that judgment (and ultimately securing a ruling in 2019 that the State was not in compliance); and a long-running campaign of advocacy through political and media channels. On foot of the Clinic’s work on this issue, redress has been secured for 14 survivors to date, and multiple other survivors are in line for potential redress once the Government concludes its review of the redress scheme.

The Clinic’s work on this issue began when a request for assistance was received by Ernest Cantillon, solicitor for Louise O’Keeffe, following the rejection of her case by the Irish Supreme Court in O’Keeffe v Hickey [2009] 2 IR 303. Over the following three years, the Clinic provided research assistance to Ms O’Keeffe’s legal team in her application to the European Court of Human Rights. Clinic members travelled to Strasbourg for the oral hearing in the case.

Louise o'Keefe in the ECtHR with Legal Representitives and memebrs of the Clinic team

In 2014, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Irish State had a positive obligation to protect against foreseeable risks of child abuse in primary schools, and had failed to discharge this obligation when it ceded control of primary schools to the churches without putting in place adequate child protection mechanisms to control against that risk. This constituted a violation of Article 3 of the ECHR, and the failure to provide Louise O’Keeffe with a remedy in Irish law constituted a separate violation of Article 13.

The Children’s Rights International Network (CRIN) has published a detailed case study on the case as an example of strategic litigation achieving a positive children’s rights outcome.

Following the judgment, the Government established a redress scheme that would provide compensation to other survivors of abuse in National School, but imposed a condition that applicants demonstrate that their abuse had occurred in the aftermath of a prior complaint of abuse that was not responded to. The Clinic repeatedly highlighted that this condition was a distortion of the terms of the Louise O’Keeffe case, including in submissions to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in April 2016 and November 2016. Dr Conor O’Mahony highlighted the issue in an op-ed article and interviews in the print media and on national radio. The Clinic’s work was quoted at length in a Dáil debate on the issue, following which the Dáil passed a non-binding motion by 84 votes to 44 in favour of expanding the scheme.

In 2018 and 2019, the Clinic made three submissions to the Independent Assessor established as an appeals mechanism for applicants whose applications for redress were rejected, arguing that the terms of the redress scheme were incompatible with the O’Keeffe judgment. Further advocacy in the broadcast and print media followed. The Clinic also supported a new application to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Allen v Ireland.

In July 2019, the Independent Assessor ruled that the “prior complaint” condition was incompatible with the ECtHR judgment in O’Keeffe, accepting the submissions made by the Child Law Clinic. The Clinic’s contribution to this ruling was acknowledged during Leaders’ Question in the Dáil by the Leader of the Opposition, Micheál Martin TD, and highlighted in multiple media outlets, including RTE, the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner and the Sunday Times.

Directly on foot of the decision, settlement offers of €84,000 were made to 13 applicants who had brought appeals to the Independent Assessor. The decision has knock-on implications for up to 360 known victims in total. The terms of the redress scheme are currently being revised by the Department of Education to bring them into line with the O’Keeffe judgment and the decision of the Independent Assessor.

Child Law Clinic

Faculty of Law, Áras na Laoi, Gaol Cross, UCC, Cork