How volunteer lawyers joined quest for Magdalene justice

Some argue that work of that nature should not have relied on volunteerism

Magdalene survivors Marina Gambold (left) and Maureen Sullivan after meeting with Enda Kenny last year. In order to deliver his report, Mr Justice John Quirke was assisted by 33 barristers who, over five weeks, talked to the 337 Magdalene survivors. photograph: bryan o’brien

Magdalene survivors Marina Gambold (left) and Maureen Sullivan after meeting with Enda Kenny last year. In order to deliver his report, Mr Justice John Quirke was assisted by 33 barristers who, over five weeks, talked to the 337 Magdalene survivors. photograph: bryan o’brien

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 01:10

In April last year they began making the first tentative phone calls. Hundreds of women with the same and yet infinitely different experiences answered to tell their stories, share their concerns, say what they needed.

There was a sense that history was being made or put to rest but above all, belated justice-in-action on a scale never before seen.

In order to deliver his Magdalene Commission Report, Mr Justice John Quirke was assisted by 33 barristers who, over five weeks, began to talk to the 337 Magdalene survivors who wished to participate in a process designed to address the issue of compensation.

It was the largest pro-bono project ever conducted by the Bar Council of Ireland and while there was nothing in the way of litigation as it was a non-adversarial process, the barristers - who had to be women - were chosen because of their experience in dealing with sensitive cases and their professional approach to confidentiality.

The process itself appears organic; the women contacted were invited to talk and share at their own pace and to whatever degree they felt comfortable with.

Information gathered would shed invaluable light on their history, create a vital context toward the issue of compensation.

Yet some difficult questions arise about how all this was achieved.

“He [Mr Justice Quirke] felt it was very important to focus on the needs of the women themselves obviously but the only way in order to do that was to set up some sort of system through which their needs could be heard and voiced,” explains Tricia Sheehy Skeffington, one of the volunteer barristers.

“It was really about them, not what we wanted from them. We also wanted them to be able to voice the hurt that they had suffered; the abuse that they suffered but we weren’t engaging in any testing.

“We would listen and take on board the information where it was appropriate but we would have been guided by what the women needed from the conversation.”

Volunteers

Resources and time were limited. The barristers, who volunteered with the facilitation of Turlough O’Donnell SC, had to find pertinent information: what the women required, such as health needs, housing and pensions among others. They had worked for free in the laundries.

In his own report Mr Justice Quirke puts the process like this: “This conversation was intended to be both an information gathering process and, more importantly, an opportunity for the Magdalene women to convey directly to the commission and to me, who they were, where they were, what their circumstances were and what could be done to assist them and make their lives more comfortable.”

To reach this end, the barristers were provided with training from the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in how to interact with the women and since the completion of the report, their testimonies have been destroyed. This was not a historical documentary exercise.

“The women I encountered through the whole thing were amazing,” says Sarah-Jane Hillery, who took part in the interviews.

“They were very keen to get the recognition. It has been a long road for them and they had been fighting for this for a long time and had lost a lot of their number as well. So it was about their voices finally being heard.

“The whole thing was about us being able to listen; we weren’t acting in any capacity as lawyers.”

Ms Hillery says that among the testimonies, while rigidly adhering to individual confidentiality, was a mixed response to Enda Kenny’s apology in the Dáil for their treatment. Many felt financial compensation was important.

“But money wasn’t the be all and end all for people. This idea of the voices being heard, that was important. As well as being important for Judge Quirke it was very important for the women as well that they felt they had a part in the process. They had a say.”

By the end – and the legal efforts resulted in a human rights honour at the recent Irish Law Awards – any sense of achievement was tempered, for some, by the sense that systemic problems existed in the approach.

While there is obvious satisfaction in the scale of the pro-bono effort, the argument exists that such important work should not have been reliant on volunteerism and in a scenario where time was at a premium.

Social ills

“My own view is that the Government required a substantial piece of work to be done in a short piece of time that needed a huge amount of work to be done by, essentially, volunteers,” says Ms Sheehy Skeffington. “I just don’t think that when you are confronting social ills that the country or the State itself has been complicit in, it’s okay to do it in an under-resourced or hurried way.”

And yet there is a slight irony in this; official Ireland, embodied here by the legal establishment, giving up a relatively small amount of valuable time to help those forced to do exactly that in the laundries.

It’s not lost on the barristers, says Ms Sheehy Skeffington, nor the sense of honour it brings with it. Pro-bono work, she says, is critical to those who otherwise may not have access to the requisite legal minds.

“But there is also another really important question around that which is: why don’t they have access?” she says.

“People shouldn’t have to feel like they are asking for charity to have their rights listened to.”

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