Courts

Friday 25 July 2014

Garda gave €20 to schoolgirl wrongly accused of extortion, court told

Tim Healy

Published 02/07/2014|02:30

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Lydia O'Hara leaving court after the opening day of her High Court action for damages

A GARDA handed a €20 note to a 15-year-old schoolgirl and told her to get phone credit after telling her she was owed "a very big apology" for being wrongly accused of extorting the same €20 from another pupil, the High Court heard.

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Lydia O'Hara was a Junior Cert student of Scoil Chriost Ri in Portlaoise in March 2004 when, the court heard, a nightmare began in which she was a victim of an allegation made up by another student. The other child claimed money had been regularly extorted from her by three girls at break-time in the school bike shed.

Ms O'Hara (25), a mother of one 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 to Ms O'Hara including one read out at assembly, the court heard.

It is, however, denying the claims and says it has to investigate when a serious allegation is made to protect the interests of students. The gardai deny she was detained and say they must investigate a serious allegation like extortion.

Ms O'Hara told the court that, as a result of the false allegation, she had tried to take her own life, self-harmed, suffered from panic attacks in public, had to undergo counselling and is still on medication for depression.

The court heard a first-year pupil's mother had written to the school alleging her child had been the victim of extortion for around six months and that it involved around €1,000. She also made a complaint to the gardai.

Martin Giblin SC, with Cormac Quinn BL, said the school allowed the gardai to come in to set up a "sting" operation in which a marked €20 note was put into the school bike shed – but there was a failure to observe who had gone to the shed at 11am that day.

Schoolbag

Ms O'Hara, who found herself the innocent victim of this sting, was at that time outside the principal's office waiting to get permission to go home early as she was not feeling well.

Ms O'Hara told the court the school secretary said she would find the principal, Helen O'Donnell, out in the yard. She left her schoolbag on the floor outside the office while she went off looking for her. She met the vice-principal on the way and was told to return to the office.

The bell for class rang and the principal, Ms O'Donnell, asked her to come into her office with her. She also asked if the schoolbag was hers and told her to pick it up. When she did, there was a €20 note underneath.

At that point, two plain-clothes gardai, John Healy and Fiona McGrath, followed them into the office. Garda Healy asked her did she know what was going on and she said she did not. They told her there was an allegation that the €20 was extorted from another student.

Her parents were called and they brought her home. Later that day, she said Garda Healy came to the O'Hara home. "He just looked at me and said young lady you are owed a very big apology, the girl is after admitting to making it all up," she said.

Garda Healy then handed her the €20 note and "told me to buy some phone credit out of it," she said.

The hearing continues before a jury and Mr Justice John Hedigan.

Irish Independent

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