THE State must pay a Cork mother €115,000 for the abuse she endured in a primary school after a landmark European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling.
But legal experts have warned that Louise O'Keeffe's victory in the ECHR may not guarantee compensation for other Irish abuse victims. While the ECHR decision is binding in relation to the Cork woman, it is not being interpreted by the Government as applicable to over 200 other abuse victims who have signalled potential actions. Settlement of all 200 actions would cost an estimated €50m.
Ms O'Keeffe (46) wept as she hailed the shock Strasbourg court decision as "a great day for the children of Ireland". She received the news of her ECHR triumph in the 39 South Mall offices of her Cork solicitor, Ernest Cantillon.
The ECHR ruled Ms O'Keeffe had her human rights breached when she was abused by her then primary school principal in 1973. In a majority decision, the 17-judge court found that Ms O'Keeffe's human rights had been breached under both Section 3 and 30 of European Human Rights protocols.
The landmark ruling may have implications for other EU states where governments have traditionally denied liability for abuse cases by insisting school boards were responsible.
"This is a great day for the children of Ireland," Ms O'Keeffe said.
"It is such good news . . . this is not just me. It is for every child who ever attends a school. This is for every single child. This isn't just my victory."
She now wants a personal apology from the Government.
Ms O'Keeffe's victory was hailed by the Irish Human Rights Commission, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and One In Four. The mother of two paid glowing tribute to her legal team led by Mr Cantillon. Mr Cantillon urged the Government to act on the ECHR ruling.
"The State will no longer be able to hide behind boards of management that they set up, in an attempt to place a buffer between themselves and the responsibility for wrongs that might occur in the classroom," he said.
The Department of Education confirmed that the ECHR judgement is being assessed.
"The abuse to which Louise O'Keeffe and many others were subjected to in our recent past is a source of national shame and it has taught us lessons that we as a country must never forget," a spokesperson said. The Department confirmed the ECHR ruled Ms O'Keeffe should be paid €30,000 damages and €85,000 in respect of costs.
Ms O'Keeffe was abused by her then-principal, Leo Hickey, at Dunderrow NS in 1973. She won an initial legal victory in July 2012 when the top EU court agreed to hear her case.
She had sued the State over the abuse and claimed the Department of Education was liable. However, the State contested every action from the High Court through to the ECHR, insisting that the independent board of management was liable.
Ms O'Keeffe first lost a High Court action and then her Supreme Court appeal – and for some time feared that she might even lose her home to pay all the legal costs. The Supreme Court later ruled the case involved important legal principles and she should not be held liable for the costs.
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 for indecent assault.
Ralph Riegel and Dearbhail McDonald