More symphysiotomy cases still in legal pipeline, says solicitor
Up to 30 women pursuing litigation rather than applying for now closed redress scheme
Judge Maureen Harding Clark: A report by the assessor of the State’s symphysiotomy scheme was rejected as “whitewash” by a survivors group. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Up to 30 symphysiotomy cases remain before the courts following the completion of the Government’s redress scheme for women who had the procedure.
Between 20 and 30 cases are “progressing to trial” and the first ones are likely to be heard by the High Court next year, according to Colm MacGeehin, the main solicitor handling symphysiotomy cases over the past decade.
The women in the cases have opted to pursue litigation instead of applying for awards of €50,000-€150,000 under the redress scheme, which is now closed.
Many of the cases advanced by the Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SoS) group were lodged as far back as 2004, but have not yet gone to trial.
Symphysiotomy is an operation to widen the mother’s pelvis to allow a baby to be delivered, and involves the severing of the fibres joining the public bones at the front of the pelvis.
Mr MacGeehin’s Dublin-based firm, MacGeehin Toale, has represented nearly 200 women who say they received symphysiotomies in Irish hospitals. Ultimately, most opted to apply for awards under the redress scheme and many were successful.
MacGeehin Toale received €1.1 million in legal costs under the scheme, half of the overall amount awarded to 86 different firms.
SoS has rejected all the reports commissioned by successive governments into the issue and opposed the redress scheme. It dismissed as “whitewash” this week’s report by the scheme’s assessor, Judge Maureen Harding Clark, in which she said she had rejected almost a third of applications because they were unfounded.
The SoS group is chaired by Marie O’Connor and its legal adviser is Mr MacGeehin, her former husband. Their son, Ruadhán Mac Aodháin, is also the group’s legal adviser and has worked as junior counsel on the court cases.
Last month, the Court of Appeal rejected a 77-year-old woman’s claim that there was no justification for a symphysiotomy carried out on her in a Dublin maternity hospital in 1963. The trial was regarded as a test case and is likely to have adverse implications for other women taking cases, although the judge stressed that each case would be decided on its merits.
In her report, Judge Harding Clark said that at least 28 applicants who never had a symphysiotomy are among those bringing legal proceedings in the High Court.
Judge Yvonne Murphy, in an earlier report, pointed out that women pursuing litigation faced many difficulties. Many of the doctors involved are dead, records are missing, and a lack of consent would be difficult to prove. Judge Murphy warned that women could fall foul of the statute of limitations and the State could allege undue delay.
The redress scheme provided for payments of up to €6,000 for legal costs incurred by women withdrawing their court cases in order to qualify for payment of an award through the scheme. Another €5,000 was payable for legal costs involved in applying under the scheme.
MacGeehin Toale has sought additional legal fees from women whom it represented and who received awards, Mr MacGeehin confirmed.
Mr MacGeehin said he had represented clients for more than a decade without receiving any payment, and that he was entitled to charge appropriate fees as specified in legal guidelines. “I got no income from this for many years,” he said.
In 2010, Mr MacGeehin and Mr Mac Aodhán formed part of the legal team for Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty in court proceedings. Mr Mac Aodháin stood for Sinn Féin in the 2011 general election.
Mr MacGeehin told The Irish Times that he has worked for politicians and groups from across the political spectrum.