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State accused of 'hiding behind' Cervical Check scandal victims as they battle labs in court

Stephen Teap, whose wife was affected by the scandal and has since died, says Varadkar needs to get ahead of the situation.

Vicky Phelan and Stephen Teap.
Vicky Phelan and Stephen Teap.
Image: Rollingnews.ie

Updated Aug 2nd 2018, 12:38 PM

THE GOVERNMENT AND State agencies have been accused of hiding behind victims of the CervicalCheck scandal as they battle with laboratories in court.

Following a meeting yesterday between the Taoiseach and Vicky Phelan, the woman who shone the light on the smear test controversy with her case, it was announced that a judge has been approached to work on an alternative approach to settle disputes.

Varadkar promised in May of this year that the government would endeavour to ensure that no woman would have to go to court, stating that mediation would be offered in all cases. However, since making that commitment, it has become apparent that this has not been happening.

Just this week the case of Ruth Morrissey, a 37-year-old cancer patient suing the State and two labs over two incorrectly read smears, was back in the High Court.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Miram O’Callaghan today, Health Minister Simon Harris said he was “angry and upset” to hear this case was back in the courts before mediation had recommenced.

“Clearly we hit a roadblock , a very serious blockage in Ruth’s case,” he said. Now, he said, the government has to work out a way of overcoming this roadblock in Ruth’s case and in others as they arise.

He said it is important that women continue to participate in the screening process, but said he wanted to make it clear that screening is not diagnostic and as with similar programmes around the world, there is an error rate.

Establishing that the error was negligent in these cases is key and Harris said the government wants to find a way to do this outside of a courtroom.

Solicitor Cian O’Carroll, who represents some of the women involved in the controversy, said the issue is “getting tied up in knots”.

He dismissed suggestions that compensating the victims could undermine the screening programme as he said this would only happen in cases of negligence, and not for every false negative.

“Parties can form a view themselves [informed by liability reports] whether a case is beyond fighting, if the error is so significant it amounts to a breach of duty.”

He pointed out that the 221 women identified so far as being affected by the scandal had been selected by CervicalCheck “because of the degree of error”.

“They shouldn’t be made to feel bad or in some way unworthy in looking for redress when they’ve been so severely harmed and wronged.”

As long as the State continue with its current policy which is to push the women out front, then do the fighting for them while the State effectively hides behind them and says ‘we can’t do anything because our hands are tied’, well then this will continue case after case.

Mediation 

The Taoiseach has now acknowledged that he should have been more clear when making promises back in May, stating that mediation is “not the holy grail” in all cases.

Stephen Teap, whose late wife Irene was affected by the scandal, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the news that Mr Justice Charles Meenan is to examine options for compensation  is a “positive step”.

“Better late than never,” he added.

Teap said he did not accept that the Taoiseach had control of the situation, stating that he is reacting to the evolving cases that emerge with measures such as the High Court judge appointment.

He said such a system should have announced back in May when Varadkar originally told the women that they would not have to face a courtroom.

‘Reactive’ Taoiseach 

The Taoiseach is in a more “reactive” than “proactive”, said Teap, adding that the Varadkar is not out in front of the situation.

Families are terrified of going to court, said Teap, who commented on the “brutality” of the courts process for the women affected, who shouldn’t have to fight their corner.

“It wasn’t the women that signed these contracts with the lab – it was the HSE. The State needs to step in, they need to go after the labs, not the women,” added Teap.

He welcomed the news that the Taoiseach is open to having the inquiry into the scandal held in public.

Phelan and Teap have been calling for an open inquiry from the very beginning.

“You can’t investigate this behind closed doors, we need to be able to see what is going on,” said Teap.

He acknowledged that some women don’t want to be out in public telling their story. Those women should be given the option of not having to do it out in the open, said Teap.

He added that such an inquiry must be concluded quickly.

“It can’t drag out over years  – some women don’t have that long and the Taoiseach needs to be mindful of that also,” said Teap.

Criticisms were also levelled at the HSE, CervicalCheck and the Department of Health, with Teap stating that he is still fighting to get his late wife’s medical records, despite Health Minister Simon Harris’ assurances that women and families should be able to access their own information easily.

- With reporting by Michelle Hennessy. 

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