Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Will Irish Magdalene Laundries Victims get the justice they deserve as compensation scheme is announced?

Magdalene Laundry at New Ross
The new controversial Magdalene Laundries compensation scheme was announced by the Irish Government last week for all the badly treated women at the hands of the religious congregations which ran them for many years.

The sequence of events which led to the announcement is the pinnacle of many years of hard campaigning by the Magdalene women for justice they dearly deserve.

Thousands of women and girls were forced into unpaid labour at the Catholic-run workhouses that operated for decades in the Republic of Ireland.

Last February saw the publication of the 1,000-page McAleese Report. It found that approximately 10,000 women and girls had been put into the laundries between the founding of the State and 1996 when the last one closed. The Irish government were implicated, and embarrassed by the findings.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny in a tearful address apologised in parliament for the "national shame" of the laundries after a report found that a quarter of the women were sent there by the Irish state.

The Irish government has agreed to pay between 35m and 58m euros (£30m to £50m) in redress to about 600 women. Out of respect for the needs and feelings of the victims one would have thought that the government would want medical evidence, and would assess the harm that was caused, in the usual way that compensation schemes work. So the more damage that was caused, the larger the figure awarded.

Not so with the Irish scheme. Mr Justice Quirke has recommended that the women in question should all receive cash payments in the range €11,500 (if their duration of stay was three months or less) to €100,000 (duration of stay of 10 years or more).

Judge Quirke’s other recommendations include:
  • The Magdalene women should all be granted access without charge to a wide range of services (GP, hospital, drugs, dental counselling etc.) i.e. an enhanced medical card;
  • All Magdalene women who have reached pensionable age should have an income equivalent to the State contributory pension;
  • All Magdalene women who have not reached pensionable age should have an income from the State of €100 per week;
  • The cash payments should be exempt from income and other taxes and should not be taken into account for the purposes of means testing social welfare or other entitlements and should not affect funding under sections 38 and 39 of the Health Act 2004;
  • The creation of a dedicated unit to provide advice and support, assistance in meeting with the religious congregations, social opportunities to meet other such women and to provide for the creation and maintenance of a memorial park;
  • The extension of the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Act 2009 so that persons are appointed to look after on an individual basis the best interests of Magdalene women;
  • Any previous payments made to these women under the Residential Redress Scheme should not be taken into account
So the scheme has been made somewhat two dimensional and simplistic. Why? Somewhat naively to make it possible to avoid victims having to use lawyers to help them with their applications. The point is that if the victims were badly educated, then they will need help with the forms, and correspondence. They are also likely to be damaged by their experiences, and will want to avoid dealing with the details repeatedly. The same applies to people who do their own probate after a near relative has died. This serves as a constant reminder of the grief that is ever present.

The Irish Redress Scheme which is now closed encouraged lawyers to be involved and paid their fees for so doing. It recognised that due to a lack of education, literacy etc. the victims would need help. The Magalene Laundries should have been included in the Redress Scheme. If this mistake had not been made, then the victims would have been entitled to instruct a lawyer without charge.

What the motive is behind the Irish Government's determination to exclude lawyers this time, I don't know. It is an easy jibe to say that as a lawyer I would say that wouldn't I? I have been acting for the victims of abuse for nearly 20 years. I know how they struggle emotionally, and how much help they need. The process is painful in itself. They need the assistance of someone to support their emotional and legal needs.

What reaction has the scheme received from the survivors? Mixed. Some are welcoming it, and others angry that it isn't enough. Ex-resident Maureen Sullivan, from Magdalene Survivors Together, said her campaign group had "rejected the deal".She said the amount of money she personally would be entitled to through the redress scheme had not been worked out yet, but it was "not very much".

Abuse carries with it life long scars. It is wrong to award money based upon how long the women were in the laundries. One has to assess the medical effects on each person. It is not unusual of someone to sustain massive damage from one incident if they are particularly fragile, whereas others who suffer serious abuse can react in a particularly robust way. This crude method also disrespects the feelings of the victims, and does not treat them as individuals.

It is sad that a motive to save money has been cloaked in a dig at lawyers - nothing new there however. I have looked at the Irish Redress Board figures. Far from "much of the money" being spent on lawyers as reported by RTE News, the figures I saw for 2010 and 2011 showed that legal fees were  between 20 and 25% of the compensation awarded.

We will see what develops, as the figures have not been finalised yet. It is said that as many as 600 women have been sent letters. Let us hope that whether or not they seek help, they get the justice they truly deserve.

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