Magdalene survivor’s UN case of key importance, lawyer says

State role in ‘suppression of evidence’ on abuse at heart of Elizabeth Coppin’s case

A case before the United Nations, in which a Magdalene survivor alleges she is being denied justice by the Irish State, could have far-reaching implications for the approach to historical abuse, a lawyer has said.

Maeve O'Rourke, a leading lawyer on the case was speaking as the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCat) begins an investigation into the treatment of Elizabeth Coppin (70).

“It raises significant issues of accountability. It is about proper acknowledgement of the legal wrongs done and the State’s role in the suppression of evidence,” said Ms O’Rourke.

Ms Coppin alleges her human rights continue to be violated by the State’s “refusal to properly investigate” the alleged abuses she experienced in laundries between 1951 and 1968.


Now living in Cambridgeshire, England, Ms Coppin was born in Co Kerry to an unmarried woman (19) in 1949. The courts committed her to an industrial school in Tralee when she was two, be detained until her 16th birthday.

Detention and beatings

In 1964, aged 14 she was transferred to a Magdalene laundry in Cork. She escaped in 1966 but was apprehended, returned, and transferred to another laundry in Sunday's Well, Cork. In 1967 she was moved to St Mary's laundry in Waterford and released in 1968, aged 18. She emigrated to England in 1969.

During her 16 years in institutions Ms Coppin alleges she was subjected to arbitrary detention, beatings, forced labour without pay, human trafficking, humiliation, denial of education, denial of identity, denial of a family life, neglect, starvation and religious denigration.

Though the alleged abuses preceded Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture in 2002, Ms Coppin argues the continued failure of the State to investigate her complaints or to provide the means for full rehabilitation, constitute ongoing breaches of her rights, under articles 12 to 14, and 16.

These guarantee a “prompt and impartial investigation” for alleged victims of torture, or cruel or degrading treatment; and “fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible”. Signatory states are obliged to prevent “other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment . . . committed by or . . . with the consent or acquiescence of a public official”.

She “has exhausted all available domestic remedies” in seeking an impartial investigation.

Admission of liability

Statements to gardaí in 1997 and 1998 were not investigated, she says. Her 2000 High Court proceedings against the religious and the State were struck out due to the lapse of time. An award from the Residential Institutions Redress Board in 2005 entailed no admission of liability. The 2011 Interdepartmental Committee on the Magdalene laundries, chaired by then senator Martin McAleese, had no remit to investigate criminal abuse.

The 2013 Magdalene Laundries Restorative Justice Scheme offered Ms Coppin an award based only on the time she spent in laundries with no admission of liability.

Ex gratia payments to Ms Coppin and other survivors are “not enough”, says Ms O’Rourke. “Survivors must have access to all their files showing how decisions were made that allowed these abuses to happen.”

A spokesman confirmed the Department of Justice received notification from UNCat of admissibility of Ms Coppin’s case on January 22nd, 2020. “A number of departments will be required to provide input . . . The deadline for providing a response to the office of the High Commissioner is 20th May, 2020.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times