The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found the Irish State liable for failing to protect school children in the past from sexual abuse by not putting in place effective mechanisms to detect the abuse. The applicant Louise O’Keefe took her case to Strasbourg after failing in both the Irish High Court and Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in this case had held that the State could not be found liable for child abuse, as the State had handed over responsibility for the internal management of schools to the National schools themselves.
The ECtHR, however, held “by 11 votes to 6 that there had been a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) and of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the Irish State’s failure to protect Ms O’Keefe from sexual abuse and also to receive recognition at national level of the failure to protect her”.
The key issue in this case that the ECtHR had to consider was whether the State as providers of education failed in their duty of care to children by handing over responsibility for detection of sexual abuse to the internal management of primary schools.
The court noted Ireland’s unique education system in that the State act as providers of education while the internal management of primary schools are left up to the schools themselves. The court held the State responsible for not putting in place effective reporting and detecting of sexual abuse. It also held that the State could not absolve itself from responsibility by simply handing over responsibility for detection of sexual abuse to the schools themselves.
The key point that the court took into consideration was that the State “had to have been aware of the level of sexual crime against minors through its prosecution of such crimes at a significant rate prior to the 1970s”.
Despite having knowledge of this, the State continued to entrust the management of primary schools to National schools. Not putting in place effective mechanisms for the detection of child abuse was a breach of Article 3 of the ECHR as it was “an inherent obligation of a Government to protect children from ill-treatment especially in primary education when they are under the exclusive control of school authorities”.
This landmark decision could have significant future implications for other victims of child abuse in that the State has been held liable. There are at present 135 cases in Ireland pending the judgment in this case. The fact that the case has held the State liable in the O’Keefe case will most definitely have a positive impact on the future of abuse cases in Ireland.
Click here to read the full case report from the European Court of Human Rights
Click here to read the full report of the case in the Irish Times
Click here to read a February 2013 Bulletin article about the case.