Northern Ireland news

Institutional abuse victims to sue after their identities were exposed in major data breach

Interim victims' advocate Brendan McAllister. Picture from Press Association

A GROUP of institutional abuse victims are planning to take civil action in the High Court after their identities were exposed in a major data breach.

The identities of more than 250 victims, some of whom already suffer severe psychiatric issues, were circulated in an email sent by the office of the Interim Advocate for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse on Friday.

Some of those identified include victims and survivors whose families do not know they were abused.

The issue has now been referred to the Information Commissioner.

READ MORE: Compensation scheme for historic institutional abuse victims to open

A victims' group has also called on the interim advocate, Brendan McAllister, to resign.

A solicitor for the majority of abuse victims, Claire McKeegan, of Phoenix Law, said many survivors had 'had their trust shattered" by the breach.

"Our clients have suffered some of the most severe abuse, including sexual abuse, and to have their private information shared among a group, when many of them have been unable to confide in even close relatives, this has caused indescribable distress," she said.

"The HIA Inquiry was protected by a strict restriction order which protected the survivors and victims in their engagement with the inquiry. A breach such as this is a breach of trust and worryingly it discourages victims and survivors in engaging in support mechanisms which they so dearly need.

"We have been instructed to seek a class action for compensation in the High Court for survivors and victims who have been impacted by this."

Claire McKeegan of Phoenix Law

The case in the High Court is likely to look at possible breaches of privacy law and data regulations.

A spokesman for the Executive Office said : "Ministers have been made aware of a data breach at the office of the Interim Advocate for Victims and Survivors of Historical Institutional Abuse.

"This is a deeply regrettable incident which has clearly caused considerable concern and anxiety.

"It is now a matter for the Information Commissioner and we await the completion of the investigations."

In a statement, Mr McAllister confirmed the data breach and apologised to everyone affected.

He said attempts were made to recall the email after it was sent.

"We have been in touch with all concerned to inform them of this unfortunate development.

"Steps are also being taken to investigate how this data breach occurred."

SAVIA spokeswoman Margaret McGuckin. Picture by Alan Lewis, Photopress

Margaret McGuckin, from Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (Savia), said some of the people identified had not wanted to be added to the interim advocate's email list and had only asked to be added to a protected database for the Redress Board, established earlier this year to decide on compensation for survivors.

Calling for Mr McAllister's resignation, she said: "There are vulnerable people with mental health issues. They are scared that family and friends will find out that they were in institutions."

Long-awaited legislation to set up a redress board for victims of historical institutional abuse was passed at Westminster in November - almost three years after the HIA inquiry exposed serious sexual, physical and emotional abuse over decades at children's homes run by religious orders, charities and the state.

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