Abuse victim's landmark EU case could open compensation claim floodgates
THE European Court of Human Rights is to hear a landmark case by an Irish abuse victim which could open the floodgates to multi-million euro compensation claims.
Louise O'Keeffe (46) told the Irish Independent she was "nervous, fearful and hopeful" about Wednesday's hearing of her case by the ECHR in Strasbourg.
She is appealing against the Department of Education's denial of liability for abuse suffered by children in national or secondary schools.
If the ECHR rules in Ms O'Keeffe's favour, the department will be forced to settle hundreds of compensation claims with youngsters abused in schools where the State is deemed to have had an oversight role.
The mother of two won a landmark victory last July when the top EU court agreed to hear her case after preliminary submissions.
The Government had vehemently opposed the move and will now contest liability before a full ECHR hearing.
The case has enormous implications for Ireland given that over 200 other abuse victims have signalled similar compensation claims.
A compensation ruling could apply to thousands of children who were abused in national or secondary schools in Ireland over the decades.
Ms O'Keeffe had been abused as an eight-year-old girl in a Dunderrow primary school in Cork in 1973 by her then principal Leo Hickey.
She sued the State and claimed the Department of Education was liable as they paid the teacher's wages, supervised the school curriculum, paid the teacher's pension and even inspected the classrooms.
However, the State contested the action and insisted that it was not liable given that there was an independent board of management in place. The department vehemently denied vicarious liability.
Ms O'Keeffe also took a civil action against Leo Hickey, who is now retired, and was awarded a monthly payment of around €400. Hickey was jailed for three years in 1998 after being convicted of indecently assaulting a number of girls in the 1970s.
Ms O'Keeffe eventually lost her Supreme Court case against the State, later expressing fears she could lose her home given that legal costs were estimated at over €750,000.
"It was frightening, of course it was. It isn't just my home. It is my children's home. So it was a very scary time for all of us," she said.
But the court ruled she should not be held liable for the legal costs arising as there were "exceptional reasons" for her taking the case.
Ms O'Keeffe later appealed the matter to the ECHR. The Strasbourg court decided last July "to admit the case for determination".
Ms O'Keeffe said she was "nervous, fearful and hopeful" about the hearing.
"I don't think we will get a ruling for some time because up to 17 judges will have to consider the issues involved here," she said.
"I am hopeful that justice will be done and my long fight will be over. This has been a very, very long battle."
The Cork mother flies out to Strasbourg tomorrow and returns on Thursday.
More than 200 other abuse victims signalled similar civil claims against the Government but either dropped or postponed their actions in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment on Ms O'Keeffe's appeal.
The charity, One In Four, has staunchly supported Ms O'Keeffe in her stance.