The Office of the Ombudsman has published its report on administration of the redress scheme for women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries – an investigation which took almost a year.
The investigation resulted from 27 complaints against the Department relating to the admission to the Magdalen Restorative Justice Scheme and the assessment of duration of stay. The Department had deemed that women who were resident in industrial schools or training centres attached to the Laundries were not eligible for the scheme as they were not “directly admitted” to the Laundries. After 9 months of engagement with the Department of Justice failed to reach agreement on the issue, the Ombudsman launched its investigation in December 2016. While the investigation was initially focused on how the eligibility criteria for the scheme were interpreted, it progressed to uncover a flawed administration process which denied many women access to redress.
The scheme was established on the recommendations of The Quirke Report, a three month review conducted by Mr Justice John Quirke, and the scheme carried forward various imprecise terms used in the report that could be interpreted in different ways. In particular, according to the investigation, the phrase “admitted to and worked in” was never properly defined. The Department interpreted this in a very narrow sense, to mean that only the women who could demonstrate that they had been officially recorded as admitted to one of the Laundries were eligible.
The Department of Justice had argued that to include any of these training centres or industrial schools would be adding new institutions to the scheme and therefore would require a decision from the Government. They further contended that the industrial schools and training centres were separate and distinct units from the Laundries that could be covered by the Residential Institutions Redress Board. Therefore, the Department argued, including such centres in the Magdalen redress scheme could result in women being compensated twice.
The Ombudsman’s report however states that there was a significant amount of evidence to support the fact that the Laundries, the industrial schools and training centres were inextricably linked and should be considered to be the same institution. The Ombudsman therefore recommends that the Department should fully reconsider any such application with a view to admitting them to the Scheme. The Ombudsman further criticises as “manifestly unfair” the decision taken by the Department to exclude women on the basis that they were resident in an institution covered by the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme.
The investigation also found that the Department had developed additional criteria which were unknown to applicants until the end of the process, at which time they’d been excluded. In addition, there were serious inconstancies in how eligibility criteria were applied to certain applications. Women admitted to different institutions linked to the same Laundry were not treated the same – some were given access to the scheme, while others excluded. This was despite the almost identical profile, characteristics and relationship with the associated Laundry both institutions shared.
The Ombudsman is also highly critical of the over reliance on official records, which were largely incomplete and unverified by the Department. Interviews with applicants were a last resort and it was not clear how much consideration was given to oral testimony. There was no indication that other avenues of corroborating evidence were pursued, such as school or social insurance records. In the Ombudsman’s view, that the process put applicants who were not in a position to build such a case at a disadvantage. The report recommends that all available sources of evidence and information should be pursued and considered.
The investigation also looked at the situation of woman who lacked capacity to look after their own affairs but who were eligible for the scheme. These women have been left without access to their entitlements under the scheme since 2013, without any steps taken to put in place a mechanism to receive their payments. The Ombudsman has recommended that the Department proactively provide practical support to the appropriate persons to ensure applications are processed, be it through wardship if necessary.
Finally, the report recommends that guidance should be produced on the development and operation of such schemes generally in order to ensure that any future restorative justice or redress schemes benefit from the learning of the operation of this scheme.
Click here to read the Ombudsman’s full report.