European Court agrees to hear abuse victim appeal


A WOMAN who was sexually abused as an eight-year-old by her teacher has been told by the European Court of Human Rights that it will hear her appeal against an Irish Supreme Court decision that the State was not legally liable for the abuse she suffered.

Louise O’Keeffe (47) yesterday welcomed the decision by the European Court of Human Rights.

“It’s a big step for me and a very welcome development – the fact that the European Court of Human Rights has decided that my case is important enough to be heard is hugely encouraging,” said Ms O’Keeffe.

The mother of two, from west Cork, had sued the Department of Education over abuse she suffered at the hands of teacher Leo Hickey at Dunderrow National School in Co Cork in the early 1970s, but the High Court in 2006 and Supreme Court in 2009 ruled the State was not liable.

She 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.

Yesterday 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.

In a 23-page judgment, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Ms O’Keeffe was entitled to choose from a number of domestic remedies in Ireland to address her grievance and that because she opted to sue the State, she was not required to sue the bishop.

The seven-judge chamber also ruled 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”.

The judges decided to strike out a complaint by Ms O’Keeffe about the length of time civil proceedings took in Ireland, which she began in 1998, but otherwise ruled that the remainder of her application was admissible without prejudicing the merits of the case.