NI: Sisters of Nazareth abuse claim fails due to delay
A woman allegedly abused at a children’s home in Belfast would have been awarded £27,500 in damages, but has had her claim dismissed by the High Court in Belfast on the grounds it is statute barred.
The plaintiff Una Irvine was in the care of Nazareth Lodge between 1 March 1935 and 25 September 1944.
She outlined to the High Court a number of specific complaints relating to her experience there. These included the fact that she was only known by a number, was not well fed, was overworked, and was subjected to physical and emotional abuse.
She described incidences when she had been struck by a stick with nails in it, and had been denied access to a toilet, resulting in her wetting herself.
She argued that her experiences had led to her suffering not only from physical injuries, but from depression throughout her life.
Her evidence was complicated by the passage of time and by her advanced age and dementia, which led to her initially being unaware that she was bringing a claim, and subsequently conceding a number of points during cross-examination.
The defendants, The Sisters of Nazareth, initially claimed that the case was barred by the provisions of the Common Law Procedure Amendment Act (Ireland) 1853 and the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1954, and was contrary to the interests of justice and the rights of the defendant to a fair hearing and a trial within a reasonable time.
In the judgment, the Court found that the relevant time limitation periods in relation to the time at which the plaintiff suffered harm were indeed those contained within the Common Law Procedure Amendment Act (Ireland) 1853, and as a result, meaning the plaintiff’s case would have expired on 30 August 1957 (6 years after her 21st birthday).
However, the Court noted that the law had since been amended a number of times, with the Limitation (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 introducing a ‘date of knowledge’ provision, which was consolidated in the Limitation (Northern Ireland) Order 1989.
In determining the applicable law, the Court considered three key cases, including Arnold v Central Electricity Generating Board AC 228, Bowman v Harland & Woolf NI 300, and McDonnell v Congregation of Christian Brothers Trustees and another UKHL 63.
The Court found that these cases provided support for a finding that despite changes to the law, the defendants were able to rely on an unassailable time bar defence under the law applicable at the time. It cited McDonnell v Congregation of Christian Brothers Trustees and another, which noted that “sympathy for the possible injustice suffered by the appellant must be tempered by recognition of the almost impossible task the respondents would face in seeking to resist a claim of this kind after the lapse of half a century.”
The Court also rejected arguments that the statute limitation breached Una Irvine’s human rights, noting that jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights, such as Stubbings v UK 1 BHRC 316, has shown that statute limitations are legitimate and within a state’s margin of appreciation.
Furthermore, it was noted, following Yew Bon Tew (1983) IRC 553 and Rowe v Kingston Upon Hull City Council, that the Human Rights Act 1998 did not have retroactive application.
Accordingly, the Court found that the defendant was protected by the limitation defence.
The Court had been asked by the plaintiff’s counsel to give its views on liability and quantum, even if unable to reject the limitation defence.
The Court found that Una Irvine had been subjected to corporal punishment beyond what was reasonable or lawful, and that this happened fairly frequently over a sustained period of time. The Court found it credible that she was struck by a stick with nails in it, and prevented from going to the toilet. As a result, the Court would have awarded her £7,500.
In relation to emotional trauma and psychiatric injury, the Court noted that it was difficult to establish causation between the depression suffered by Una Irvine, and the harm she experienced under Sisters of Nazareth’s care.
Thus, the Court found that the most it could determine was that Una Irvine had suffered harm which made her vulnerable to psychiatric injury, which had in turn materialised because of other sources of stress in her life. The Court would have therefore ordered £20,000, bringing the sum to £27,500.