Historic abuse victims in Northern Ireland have accused the Government of ignoring its moral duty after a legal bid to secure stalled compensation payouts failed.
A judge at Belfast High Court ruled that Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley’s ongoing refusal to intervene and implement a redress scheme was not unlawful.
Compensation payments of up to £100,000 recommended by a state inquiry more than two years ago have not been distributed to victims due to the collapse of the powersharing executive in Belfast.
A judicial review taken by an abuse survivor in an attempt to compel Mrs Bradley to establish the scheme, and call an Assembly election to address the political impasse, was rejected by Judge Bernard McCloskey on Friday.
While the judge said Mrs Bradley’s current stance was not unlawful he did not issue a final order in the case, instead leaving the door open for a potential further challenge.
The head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, David Sterling, is in the final stages of drawing up draft legislation that would give effect to the redress scheme. He intends to present this to Mrs Bradley and ask her to take it through Westminster.
Justice McCloskey indicated to lawyers for the anonymous victim, known as JR80, that he would be prepared to hear the case again if Mrs Bradley does not act on the draft legislation.
“The intervention of the court in this case has occurred at a fixed point in time,” he said. “Certain imminent events of unmistakable significance, involving the Secretary of State in particular, are awaited.”
After the hearing, Jon McCourt, chairman of the Survivors North West group, expressed his anger outside court.
“We are angry, we are disappointed, we are frustrated and I don’t know what this is going to do to people who had actually put their hopes on the justice system starting to work on behalf of justice for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse,” he said.
“There’s something wrong with this system when it doesn’t prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable people in its society.”
He said the spotlight was now on Mrs Bradley and what she would do with the draft legislation.
“Let’s see what she does, let’s see if she has a moral conscience,” he said.
“Let’s see whether she’s prepared at some point to take into consideration the harm, the damage, the pain and the trauma that’s been caused to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. It’s about time stuff was sorted – it needs to be done now.”
Kate McCausland, whose 88-year-old mother Una Irvine was abused in a home run by the Sisters of Nazareth religious order in Belfast, wept as she described her mother’s current battle with Alzheimer’s.
“The time has passed for her to have the satisfaction of knowing that justice was done,” she said.
“Two years ago she may have been able to enjoy the practical help that compensation would have afforded her, but there are so many like her and I think it’s an absolute disgrace that’s she’s been let down.
“They were helpless in the home. She was four when she was put in and she spent 10 years there and they were helpless, they had nowhere to run then, and they’ve been let down again by those in authority.”
Mrs McCausland, from Ballygowan, Co Down, said her mother’s two younger sisters, who were also put in Nazareth House, died before the HIA inquiry was set up.
“It was her wish that the compensation be shared with their families,” she said.
The applicant JR80 is a member of the lobby group Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA).
The group’s solicitor, Claire McKeegan, said the order was “unique”.
“The court has not abandoned these proceedings, there has been no final order,” she said.
“Today’s order suggests that JR80 has an opportunity to revisit these proceedings should there be a situation where the Secretary of State refuses to take the legislation through Parliament once David Sterling has it completed.
“We believe that this is a positive and the court has exercised a supervisory role over what should happen next.”
She said the legal team would study the judgment in full before deciding whether there were grounds for appeal.
A member of SAVIA, called Shauneen, urged Northern Ireland politicians to put aside their differences as she spoke on behalf of the group outside court.
“The victims and survivors are devastated by today’s verdict,” she said.
“We have waited a lifetime for justice and once more we have been cast aside. It is clear that our local politicians can fix this and deliver it for us. If ever there was a reason for our politicians to get back to work this is it.
“They have a responsibility to stand up for victims and survivors, we are calling for them to put their differences aside for the sake of victims and survivors. We deserve more.
“If a legal duty hasn’t been established a moral one certainly has. People are dying here. We can’t wait any longer.”
Mr McCourt recalled a meeting at Stormont with former first minister Peter Robinson and former deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, on the abuse issue.
“They made us a promise in that room – ‘we will not let you down’,” he said. “We have been let down at every turn, every turn we have been let down.”
Mrs McCausland said her mother now only retained memories from her childhood – the time she was kept in the home.
“She’ll say to me when she wakes up – ‘what is your number?’ or ‘we better run, we are going to get beaten’.
“Or she’ll look at me, she doesn’t know I’m her daughter, she’ll look at me in fear and say ‘don’t you throw wee children across the floor and kick them’. And that happened.”
Delivering his ruling in Belfast High Court, Justice McCloskey said the current political vacuum was unsatisfactory but it was not unconstitutional.
“The plight of victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland illustrates graphically just how damaging this is for certain sections of society,” he said.
The proposals put forward by the HIA inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Anthony Hart, are mired in uncertainty due to the Stormont impasse.
They were published just as the DUP/Sinn Fein-led executive was imploding in January 2017, so no elected local ministers have been able to take action.
A public consultation on the proposed shape of the compensation scheme closed last month, but the plans cannot be implemented without intervention by the UK Government.
The HIA inquiry studied allegations of abuse in 22 homes and other residential institutions between 1922 and 1995. There were 76 homes that operated during that time and abuse victims from all of them would be eligible to apply for compensation.
The facilities were run by the state, local authorities, the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and children’s charity Barnardo’s.
The inquiry recommended compensation payouts ranging from £7,500 to £100,000 for victims. An estimated 5,000 people are eligible for the payments.
Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster have written to Mrs Bradley urging her to intervene and legislate for compensation.
A UK Government spokeswoman said: “It is vital that action is taken to ensure victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse get the redress they deserve.
“The Executive Office is currently analysing the responses to the consultation (public consultation on the draft legislation) in order to prepare a written report for ministerial consideration. The aim is for this to be completed shortly.
“This marks a significant step forward. An interim advocate will also be appointed to provide support and assistance to victims and survivors until a statutory commissioner can be appointed.
“The UK Government’s priority continues to be the restoration of the NI Executive at the earliest opportunity. If there is not an Executive in place by the time the consultation analysis and report are finalised, the UK Government will consider next steps in the absence of ministers.”