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U-turn on statute of limitations as closure sought for symphysiotomy survivors

Survivors want the government to enter into settlement talks with them but James Reilly said it is not in the women’s best interests to lift the Statute of Limitations.

Image: Barratts/S&G Barratts/EMPICS Archive

JUDGE YVONNE MURPHY has been tasked by the government to find closure for survivors of symphysiotomy.

The Circuit Court judge has been given eight weeks to examine all relevant reports and information, meet with the women who had the barbaric procedure performed on them during childbirth and assess what would be a satisfactory solution.

She was also tasked with assessing the relative liabilities of insurers, indemnifiers and other parties in relation to cases pending – or cases which may arise – that are linked to the surgical procedure.

The terms of reference of her appointment also outline the necessity to meet with insurers and indemnifiers to “explore and negotiate a quantum representing a fair contribution towards a fund which would form part of an ex-gratia scheme”.

The government says it will add to the scheme to “put closure on the issue for the women involved”.

Judge Murphy has been asked to compare the merits and cost to the State of proceeding with a redress fund, relative to allowing the court process to proceed.

She will report her recommendations to Health Minister James Reilly within two months.

Lack of clarity

Survivors of Symphysiotomy chairperson Marie O’Connor was disappointed following her lunchtime meeting with the Minister.

“The only additional information we were given was the appointment of Judge Murphy. We hadn’t known the identity of the judge until this meeting of which we were given 18 hours notice. No clarification was forthcoming on the terms of reference, no information given on the amount the government will contribute to this fund,” she explained.

Speaking outside Leinster House, O’Connor noted that the meeting – which was also attended by representatives of two other support groups Patient Focus and Survivors of Symphysiotomy Ltd – was just of “limited value”.

Her group, which she says represents the majority of survivors in the country, remains committed to a Private Members’ Bill which would see the statute of limitations lifted for one year so the women could take their cases down a legal road.

“We are interested in pursuing a settlement based on truth, the truth that these operations were wrong, should never have been performed. That truth is yet to issue from the authorities.

Also [we want] to pursue restitution in line with the scales laid down for personal injuries in medical negligence actions.

SOS members have decided not to engage on a one-on-one basis with Judge Murphy but have instructed the National Executive of the council to discuss the terms of a settlement on their behalf.

“We asked the government repeatedly and they have refused to enter into settlement talks based on the legal actions being taken by our members,” continued O’Connor, who says there are over 200 action legal actions in the pipeline.

She expects to see test cases in the High Court next year with trial dates set down in the new year.

A horrific option

Symphysiotomies were surgical procedures were performed during the 1980s in Irish hospitals, long after they were long discontinued in other jurisdictions. The operation involved unhinging the woman’s pelvis and widening it by up to 3.5 cm during childbirth. It was often used in Ireland as an alternative to the Caesarean Section as it was believed to facilitate future births.

“I have listened closely to the testimony provided by the women and I cannot help but be moved by their stories. I am determined that their situation will now be addressed having been ignored for so long by previous governments,” Reilly said this afternoon.

The Minister said he believes the passage of time and lack of detailed information about certain cases will prove problematic if the women pursue legal challenges.

“An analysis of the small number of cases that have been through the court system highlights the risks to a successful outcome and the massive costs involved,” he said, explaining that some women did not even know the identity of their doctor.

“Accordingly the government has reached the view that the best interests of the women are not served by a move to lift the statute of limitations,” he continued in a statement, outlining a u-turn on the issue.

Previously, the government supported – in theory – a lifting of the statute of limitations.

“The government is fully aware that this decision represents a material change to its earlier position, but it believes the ability to deliver an outcome that provides the widest possible support to the women is enhanced,” continued Reilly, who reiterated his wish that the women benefit from any redress scheme – and not legal teams.

-Additional reporting by Hugh O’Connell

Read: Minister does not want legal firms to benefit from symphysiotomy settlement

More: Symphysiotomy survivors gather to recount stories of torture

Interview: ‘I didn’t know if my baby was dead or alive for two days’

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