Northern Ireland

Amnesty International responds to abuse victim claims

Abuse victim
Image caption The inquiry will examine allegations of abuse going back to the 1940s

Amnesty International has accused the executive of trying to deflect criticism of a child abuse inquiry.

The executive's junior ministers have said that "intense pressure" from lawyers and lobbyists had led to some abuse victims being hospitalised.

Last month, the executive announced the scope of an inquiry into allegations of abuse in children's homes and care institutions as far back as 1945.

Amnesty said it welcomed this but had also pointed some "inadequacies" of it.

It said these included the fact it lacked the power to compel witnesses' attendance, that the arbitrary time limitation inquiry meant it might not have the capacity to carry out investigations in full, and that the executive had not committed to finding the money to make financial payments to the victims.

Amnesty's Tim Hancock said: "Junior ministers have made comments about the stress endured by victims who were contacted by lobby groups.

"Amnesty does not recognise any of the substance of the allegations and is concerned that this might be an attempt to deflect criticisms of the limitations of the executive's proposals."

Earlier DUP MLA Jonathan Bell alleged victims had been made physically and mentally ill following harassment by lawyers and lobby groups.

'Reprehensible and wrong'

Mr Bell and his Sinn Fein colleague Martina Anderson said both solicitors' companies and lobbying groups were responsible for approaching victims and should stop immediately.

The DUP minister said that in some cases face-to-face contact had continued despite victims telling those approaching them to stop.

He added: "Conversations are still being held to the point where victims are having to physically leave areas where people are contacting them.

"We find that reprehensible and wrong."

Ms Anderson said that following a meeting she and Mr Bell had with victims, two trained counsellors had spoken to some of them and found that they had been "grilled and retraumatised" by the approaches.

"We can say that this pressure seriously impacted on the health of some victims," she added.

Mr Bell said he understood that one Dublin law firm had made 6.2m euros from the Ryan inquiry into abuse in the Irish Republic and that some lawyers in Northern Ireland felt there were millions to be made.

'Victim-centred approach'

Belfast-based solicitor Tony Caher said that he was unsure whether what had happened could be described as "ambulance-chasing".

"That is something that is distasteful and reflects badly on the legal profession but I am not altogether satisfied that is what happened here," he said.

"How did the lawyers get access to phone numbers unless the victims made contact with legal firms in the past?"

John Heaney of Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA) said his group believed that too many lawyers would "draw out the process" and he believed that some of the lobbying had been to persuade victims that his organisation's approach was not appropriate.

Both ministers have said they are following a "victim-centred approach" to dealing with the legacy of the abuse and will not be naming the companies involved in the lobbying.

They said that they would continue to provide emergency counselling to those affected by the approaches.

A Law Society spokesperson said: "The Law Society of Northern Ireland have received no communication on this matter from the junior ministers' office nor has it received any complaints from members of the public in relation to the matters raised by both junior ministers."

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