A GROUP REPRESENTING symphysiotomy survivors has called on the government’s redress scheme to reconsider its decision to destroy unclaimed medical records.
A notice posted on the payment scheme’s website earlier this month advised applicants that they have until 29 February to request that the documents they submitted for assessment be returned to them.
The notice said the scheme will assume applicants who have not made contact by this date are happy to have their documents shredded when its work is complete.
Applicants who received legal assistance were assured, however, that their solicitor will have the originals of all documents sent to assessors.
The scheme said all original birth certificates will also be returned once assessments have been made.
However, a group representing women who were subjected to the controversial procedure has now called on the Data Protection Commissioner to intervene in the matter.
Marie O’Connor of Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS) says the records were entrusted to the scheme on the understanding that they would eventually be returned.
“Instead of destroying these valuable records, we appeal to the assessor to return them by post to all applicants, as the scheme undertook to do,” she says.
The terms of the scheme state that “the assessor shall, where reasonably possible, arrange for the return to the applicant or her solicitor” of any submitted documents.
The assessor also has the power, however, to “arrange for the destruction of confidential documentation and information whether in documentary or electronic form” once the scheme is concluded.
But O’Connor believes the scheme should have gone to greater efforts to ensure applicants see the return of their documents – some of which are original, decades-old hospital and GP files.
She says that there was “much anger and outrage” among members of the group at the planned destruction of unclaimed records.
That the notice was not directly communicated to the women concerned is “grossly inadequate”, O’Connor says.
The overwhelming majority of our members are not computer literate nor are their legal advisors in the habit of receiving online notifications.
Women without legal representation are particularly vulnerable to having their data shredded without their knowledge or consent.
O’Connor is also concerned that the documents will be held for collection at the Department of Health once the assessment process has concluded.
Many applicants are involved in litigation against the state, she says, and to deposit their records with the department could potentially give the state an advantage in upcoming legal action.
Instead, SOS is urging the scheme to return all medical records to applicants by post.
Data lawyer Fred Logue also believes the onus is on the assessor to return the documents.
“Placing an ad on the internet with a short deadline is not only unreasonable but also a breach of the terms of reference, which are crystal clear on this point,” he says.
Shredding of any personal medical records could also violate data protection legislation, he adds.
Any unauthorised destruction of documents containing personal data is in breach of the terms of reference and would likely be also a breach of the Data Protection Acts, and aggrieved applicants would have remedies in that respect.
Symphysiotomy was carried out on an estimated 1,500 women in Ireland up to the 1980s, long after being discontinued in other jurisdictions.
The controversial operation involved cutting the cartilage of a pregnant women’s pelvic bone – or breaking the bone itself in some extreme cases – to widen the birth canal.
Many women subjected to the procedure were left with long-term medical difficulties including incontinence and chronic pain.
The government established a redress scheme to compensate survivors following years of campaigning.
Women injured during the operation have been able to claim for one of three categories of funding: €50,000, €100,000 and €150,000.
A spokesperson for former High Court judge Maureen Harding Clark, who oversees the scheme, said she had outlined her position fully to SOS.
“Any applicant who wishes to have her documents returned can write to Judge Clark at the scheme and they will be returned,” they said.
The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner confirmed it is considering the matter following correspondence received this week.