Northern Ireland news

Human rights lawyer taking class action for Muckamore families

Solicitor Claire McKeegan is taking a class action on behalf of families affected by abuse at Muckamore Abbey Hospital
Seanín Graham

A human rights lawyer who is taking a class action on behalf of families whose loved ones have been abused in Muckamore Abbey Hospital has said they are demanding "answers and accountability".

In her first interview about the legal challenge, solicitor Claire McKeegan confirmed that several families have contacted her about pursuing a civil case against the Belfast health trust, which is responsible for the Co Antrim facility.

She said she hopes to get "every shred of documentation" from the trust in relation to the "systemic" abuse of its vulnerable patients - including ward CCTV footage and medical notes - through a legal process in which the NHS body will be obliged to forward relevant material.

"In terms of first steps we will be writing to the trust to set out the failings and ask for an immediate remedy in terms of compensation and admissions of liability for negligence and breach of statutory duty," she said.

"In lay man's language, their loved ones have been harmed and they deserve to receive some form of justice and truth recovery."

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The hospital is at the centre of the biggest adult safeguarding investigation of its kind in Northern Ireland, with the National Crime Agency now assisting police in the probe into physical and mental abuse of patients with severe learning disabilities.

Ms McKeegan of Phoenix Law, who also represents historical abuse victims as well as those abused by a Co Down paedophile priest, said the Muckamore case was unique due to the existence of the CCTV footage which shows hospital staff assaulting patients between March and September last year.

Staff did not realise the cameras were recording.

The Irish News first revealed the scandal in July and the unprecedented number of nursing suspensions.

An independent report has concluded that patients' lives were put at risk.

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A total of 15 staff, mainly nurses, have been suspended.

The Belfast lawyer said families are keen to get to "the truth" after some were forced to make requests under Freedom of Information legislation to find out what happened to their relatives.

"I met with a family yesterday and I have been approached by several families in past few days who are keen to pursue a class action, who are demanding answers and accountability," she said.

"It's clear their loved ones have been let down, that they've been harmed in a place where they should be cared for - in a hospital."

Earlier this week The Irish News revealed concerns that information had been initially "suppressed" by the trust in relation to the scale of the abuse, after leaked notes showed the Department of Health only became aware following a tip-off from a politician.

Ms McKeegan said that through her legal challenge she hopes to discover "who knew what and when".

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"No doubt a blame game will occur now. But with a civil case and through the process of 'discovery', the trust will be forced to give us give every single shred of documentation which shows what their defence is - so for instance all of that CCTV footage would have to be provided under discovery if it still exists, which we know it does.

"Medical notes and records, any disciplinary meetings that have ever taken place and any complaints that are relevant will also have to be forwarded."

The solicitor backed mounting calls for a public inquiry and urged other families affected to contact her.

"Clearly the issues of abuse at Muckamore were systemic and relate to the failings of more than one organisation. The only way to have a thorough examination and look at all of the failings would be under the remit of a public inquiry which has the powers to get to the truth through full disclosure and compelling witnesses."

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