Belfast Telegraph

Call for immediate action as court rules Stormont officials can implement abuse compensation scheme

Appeal court judges have ruled the Stormont Executive Office has the power to compensate survivors of institutional abuse in NI (PACEMAKER BELFAST 04/11/2019)
Appeal court judges have ruled the Stormont Executive Office has the power to compensate survivors of institutional abuse in NI (PACEMAKER BELFAST 04/11/2019)

By Alan Erwin

Northern Ireland's Executive Office can introduce compensation for those subjected to the "torture" of historical institutional abuse, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Senior judges held that officials running the department have the power to implement an ex gratia scheme for elderly victims in the absence of a functioning Assembly at Stormont.

The verdict appears to clear the way for payments to be made - even if a new bill on a recommended redress scheme fails to get through before Parliament dissolves.

Jubilant campaigners insisted officials must now act immediately.

Margaret McGuckin of Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse said: "They had the power if they had looked deeper into the law, and they should now do this forthwith.

"How many more people have to die without getting the redress they deserve?"

Legal action was brought over the ongoing failure to begin compensation payments recommended by a major inquiry back in 2017.

The challenge was taken by a man in his 70s, identified only as JR80, on behalf of those subjected to physical and sexual mistreatment in children's homes run by religious orders and the state between 1922 and 1995.

JR80's solicitor, Claire McKeegan, said later: "This ruling is vindication for survivors and victims who have called for steps to be taken on their behalf.

"It is not only hugely significant for the issue of redress due to these people for so long, but also for so many other people in Northern Ireland left hanging in the balance in the absence of devolution.

Margaret McGuckin, leader of Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse, speaks outside The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, as it has ruled that the Executive Office has the power to introduce a compensation scheme for victims of historical institutional abuse.
Margaret McGuckin, leader of Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse, speaks outside The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, as it has ruled that the Executive Office has the power to introduce a compensation scheme for victims of historical institutional abuse.

"Now there's legal clarity on who has the responsibility and power to exercise executive functions."

Earlier this year a High Court judge dismissed the case after describing the continued political vacuum as defective and damaging for society, but not unconstitutional.

Despite ongoing attempts at Westminster to introduce legislation ensuring the compensation for abuse victims, JR80 pressed ahead with an appeal against that ruling.

In its report, the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry said payments ranging from £7,500 to £100,000 should be made to those who suffered neglect and assaults in the homes.

But hopes of obtaining payments foundered when Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration collapsed in January 2017.

Since then up to 30 abuse victims have died without gaining access to the proposed redress scheme.

JR80 sought to have the Secretary of State and Executive Office compelled to take immediate steps on the pay-outs.

His barrister argued that he and other survivors have been denied the justice they deserve from the state.

Appeal judges were told there is prerogative authority to introduce an ex gratia scheme of payments before it is too late.

Counsel for JR80 and others in the group stressed that victims are dying without any redress.

Ruling on the case, Lord Justice Stephens identified the first issue as being an ex gratia redress scheme "for those who have been tortured".

He said: "We conclude that the Executive Office can exercise the prerogative to do do.

"We emphasis this doe not mean an ex gratia scheme has to be set up, but it establishes there's a power to do so."

Judges also found no evidence that Secretary of State Julian Smith had considered exercising his powers to direct a Northern Ireland department to establish the compensation scheme.

They held that he should consider giving such a direction, but imposed no obligation.

Outside court Ms McGuckin insisted her group's legal campaign should never have been resisted.

"They made us feel the lowest of the low," she said.

"They came up against us every step of the way when they are public servants who should have been there to support us." ends

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