Sunday, 10 February 2013

Leslie Keegan

Barrister Leslie Keegan asked me this week the price of an apology. For some people he knows, it would be worth a million dollars. We talked as the 1000 page McAleese Report was published, officially recognising the Irish State's role for the first time in the unlawful enslavement of over 11,000 women in church-run institutions, where they were forced to work for no money and sometimes abused. Girls as young as eight were referred by local priests or even the courts and some would stay there for life. Yet for years the wrong done to them by the State was never acknowledged. The Magdalene laundries were even excluded from the Residential Institutional Redress Board which awarded compensation to  people who'd suffered at the hands of other Irish residential institutions as children, because they were privately run rather than institutions of the state. But this week's report brought the Irish authorities to account, arguing that as more than 25% of victims had been sent to the laundries directly by the State they couldn't evade responsibility.

"As a student, I was involved in a voluntary project that took me to the laundries." Leslie told me as we discussed their story  this week. "The scheme involved creating a place of respite for city children. We built a tree house at a centre that provided summer holidays for city children and at the end of each visit, when the children had gone home, the laundry girls - "Maggies" as they were known - would come to clear up."

I got to know some of them well and over the years I heard their stories. Endless hours of hard, unpaid labour, from morning til night; little or no education; no hope of escape for many - indeed if you weren't "claimed back" by someone on the outside, you could be there for the rest of your life. Tales of cruelty were rife - even physical  abuse." 

Aside from his clinical negligence practice for which he is famous, Leslie is known for his work in institutional care cases having acted for a number of successful claimants before the Residential Institutions Redress Board in Ireland.  Unsurprisingly he has received a number of enquiries to represent victims of the Magdalene laundries scandal.  This latest development is close to his heart.

"Reading about this week's Report I have mixed feelings," he tells me. "It's a good first step; the Irish authorities finally acknowledging some responsibility: as the Report puts it, for "significant state involvement in how the laundries were run". But did you notice how the Taoiseach slid out of a full apology? Enda Kenny says he is "sorry the stigma of being in the laundries was not removed," but stopped short of a proper apology. As any psychiatrist will tell you (and I work with a number in the course of my work) an apology is crucial in enabling victims to start the healing process and move on.  At least it seems the labour members of the coalition government are putting heavy pressure on the Taoiseach now to make a full apology and to sort out a compensation scheme for the Magdalene women.

"I do think these victims are owed financial compensation. But I know most of them will say it's actually the State apology that will be most valuable."

Did you hear the good news? The Law Society forecasts growth for global legal services (although predicts continuing pressure on high street firms).

If you want to see how The Law Society came to its conclusions, you can take a look at its most comprehensive and authoritative study to date on the legal services market here. I'd love to hear your interpretation of the findings.  Please do either leave your comments in the box below or contact me directly.

I particularly like the Law Society's creative scenario planning that accompanies the research.  Looking further ahead to 2025, four different versions of the future are described, anticipating different political, economic and market developments as a means of helping firms with their long-range thinking and business planning: The Law Is an App - a highly dynamic, competitive environment where only the fittest and most adaptable survive; Wise Counsel - a world where legal expertise is highly valued and demand for good quality legal services is strong; Mini Clubmen - the Mini used as a metaphor to describe the transition from a classic to a familiar work-a-day model; and Bleak House - a scenario describing tension between buyer and provider in which the outlook for both is bleak. 

I'm not so sure about these as "alternative" visions of the future; if you ask me, all four seem to be playing out in different parts of the legal services market in the current day...

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Huhne v Huhne speed points court drama this week - and there were many, as we were all subjected to a very unsavoury tale of family misery - is the fact that the "marital coercion" defence Chris Huhne's ex-wife is using to say she was pressurised into doing wrong and not responsible for her own actions, is only available to women. In law, it is not possible for a man to argue the same position, ie that he was so under the influence of his wife that he didn't know his own mind and his own actions. Nor is the defence available in the context of a civil partnership.  Highly ironic that this little gem emerged in the same week the House of Commons approved gay marriage.... The law clearly needs to marry up it left hand with its right.

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