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Thursday 21 August 2014

'False extortion claim has ruined my life,' ex-pupil suing school and gardai tells court

Published 02/07/2014 | 16:48

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Lydia O'Hara
Lydia O'Hara

A WOMAN suing her former school and the gardai over a false extortion allegation against her when she was a Junior Certificate student says a proper investigation would have ensured her life was not ruined.

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Lydia O'Hara told the High Court both she and the fellow pupil who made the false allegation should have been put under surveillance by gardai and this would have established straight away she was innocent.

She would not then have had to been brought into the principal's office of Scoil Chriost Ri, Portlaoise, on March 9, 2004, and  wrongly accused by two plain-clothes officers over the other pupils claim that €20 was being extorted from her every week in the bike shed.

The accuser almost immediately admitted she was making the story up and on the same day Ms O'Hara's ordeal began, gardai arrived at her home and said she was owed a big apology.

Ms O'Hara (25), who is from Portlaoise, is suing the school board of management and the Garda Commissioner for defamation, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional and physical harm.

The school issued a number of apologies including a lengthy one read out at assembly, the court heard.

The school and gardai deny her claims and say they were obliged to carry out an investigation into a serious offence.

The court heard when a complaint was made by the mother of the girl who claimed to be the victim of extortion, gardai set up "a sting" operation in which two officers gave the girl a marked €20 note to give to the alleged extortionist.

At the time the hand over was supposed to be taking place in the bike shed, Ms O'Hara said she was waiting outside the princpal's office to seek permission to go home early as she was having a heavy period.

She had left her schoolbag on the floor outside the office after the school secretary said the principal was out in the yard and Ms O'Hara went to find her.

She told the court the school secretary had informed her the accuser had been noticed "hovering around my schoolbag" at this time.

When Ms O'Hara returned to the office, she was approached by the principal Helen O'Donnell who told her to pick up her bag and come into her office.   When she did, the marked €20 note was underneath it.

Ms O'Hara went into the office followed by the two gardai where she says she was falsely accused and detained until her parents arrived.

Later that day, after gardai had re-interviewed the accuser, they arrived at Ms O'Hara's home and said she was owed "a big apology".

Under cross-examination yesterday by Cormac Corrigan SC, for the gardai, Ms O'Hara said if gardai had monitored the movements of both her and the accuser on the day of the incident, it would quickly have established the accuser put the €20 under her bag.

She agreed the accuser, who never returned to the school where Ms O'Hara continued on to complete her Leaving Cert, was put under the garda juvenile liaison scheme until she was 18. 

However, she believed this was "just a slap on the wrist" and she should have been charged with wasting three days of garda time and because her allegation had "ruined and destroyed my life".

On the day her Junior Cert exams began, she received a card from the accuser apologising for what she had done, but this only caused her upset.

The gardai, who had suggested the accuser write an apology, had themselves refused to apologise for what they did, she said. 

While the school  had apologised, the gardai said they had nothing to apologise for and would investigate an allegation in the same way if they had to do it again, she said.

She disagreed that in bringing the case against he gardai that she was "just lashing out" and exaggerating.

Asked what she thought the gardai had to learn from all this, she said that they should not interview a 15-year-old girl without her parents particularly as her 13-year-old accuser had had the benefit of her mother being present when she was being interviewed.

Ms O'Hara's mother, Elizabeth O'Hara, told the court that as a result of the incident she felt she had "lost my daughter" and what happened was "like a death in the family".

Under cross-examintion by Niall Beirne SC, for the school, Mrs O'Hara agreed Lydia had "rebelled" in the year before the incident after a school friend had died.  She disagreed she had taken an overdose but "taken a few Panadol" after her friend died.

The hearing continues before a judge and jury.

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