Cork abuse case opens in Strasbourg

Lawyers for mother of two, Louise O'Keeffe from West Cork will present their appeal before the 17 judges of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg this morning with judgement expected to be reserved.

Lawyers for mother of two, Louise O'Keeffe from West Cork will present their appeal before the 17 judges of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg this morning with judgement expected to be reserved.

Wed, Mar 6, 2013, 00:00

A woman who was sexually abused as an eight-year-old by her teacher will today begin her appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against an Irish Supreme Court decision that the State was not legally liable for the abuse she suffered.

Lawyers for mother of two, Louise O'Keeffe from West Cork will present their appeal before the 17 judges of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg this morning with judgement expected to be reserved.

Ms O'Keeffe had sued the Department of Education over abuse she suffered at the hands of teacher Leo Hickey at Dunderrow National School near Innishannon in Co Cork while a pupil there in the early 1970s.

But the High Court in 2006 ruled that it was the board of management of the school rather than the Dept of Education which was liable for damages for the abuse that Ms O'Keeffe had suffered at the hands of Hickey.

Ms O'Keeffe appealed the High Court ruling to the Supreme Court but in 2009, the Supreme Court refused the appeal, ruling that the State could not be held vicariously liable for the sexual assaults on Ms O'Keeffe by Hickey.

Four of the five judges of the Supreme Court noted that Hickey was employed as a teacher at the school under the management of the local Catholic priest and that it was the school manager not the Dept of Education which decides which teacher to employ.

Ms O'Keeffe then instructed her solicitor Ernest Cantillon to lodge appeal papers against the Supreme Court decision and in June 2009 he lodged a detailed submission outlining her arguments for appeal with the European Court of Human Rights.

However, the State opposed the admission of the case before the European Court, arguing in a 36-page submission that Ms O’Keeffe’s failure to sue the Bishop of Cork and Ross was "a significant mistake on her part".

The State argued that, by failing to sue the bishop, who was patron of Dunderrow National School and owned it through trustees, Ms O’Keeffe was precluded from claiming she had exhausted all her legal remedies in Ireland.

However in July 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Ms O’Keeffe was entitled to choose from a number of domestic remedies in Ireland to seek redress and because she opted to sue the State, she was not required to sue the bishop.

The seven-judge chamber also ruled in a 23 page judgement that Ms O’Keeffe’s essential grievance concerned "the State’s responsibility for the abuse suffered by her as well as the availability of a civil remedy against the State in that respect".

"She chose to pursue to the Supreme Court an action alleging State responsibility for the abuse on the basis of vicarious liability and the court considers this was a reasonable choice," they ruled.

The judges pointed out that Ms O’Keeffe’s case was a lead case in Ireland and the eventual outcome could not have been said to be clearly foreseeable and if successful would have involved a finding of State responsibility and award of damages against it.

The European court ruled that Ms O’Keeffe’s complaint "cannot be . . . dismissed as inadmissible on the grounds of a failure to exhaust domestic remedies" and that it "was not manifestly ill-founded".

Commenting at the time, Mr Cantillon said the decision by the European Court to admit the case for hearing was highly significant in that it did not accept the State’s arguments that Ms O’Keeffe had failed to exhaust all legal remedies in Ireland.

"This is a very important decision by the European Court of Human Rights and one which will be watched closely by the Irish State and by other victims of sexual abuse who may be contemplating similar actions for the abuse they suffered," he said.