A Supreme Court decision has found that the Dublin government has been illegally charging residents of nursing homes for their care.
It also emerged that the practise of applying charges to social welfare payments to medical card holders continued for decades against legal advice.
The unanimous ruling denied the government’s bid to retain the illegally obtained money by passing retrospective legislation and paves the way for billions of euro to be refunded.
The Minister for Health, Mary Harney, is at the centre of the controversy. On Wednesday, she said she no longer stood over her statement last December that the illegal charges had been levied by health boards “in good faith”.
She had changed her mind, she claimed, after it emerged that legal advice given to a health board in 1978 had been ignored.
She accused her own Department and health boards of “systemic maladministration”.
She looked forward to the outcome of an inquiry commissioned by her, which is being conducted by Mr John Travers. It will examine how the charges continued through “11 governments, 12 or 13 ministers for health and 40 health boards”.
Ms Harney said yesterday the Government would repay the money “as fairly and as quickly as we can”. She said the Government still had to decide what mechanism to use to compensate people.
If the Statute of Limitations is applied, only charges imposed for the past six years would have to be paid back, but ppposition parties urged the government to refund all the money.
Sinn Fein’s Caoimhghin O Caolain described the affair as a “legal debacle” for the Government -- but “a welcome judgment” for “those thousands of elderly people on whom charges were wrongfully imposed”.
The Labour Party’s deputy leader Liz McManus accused the Government of ineptitude.
“Could I ask the Taoiseach to make a statement now in relation to the situation that arises as a result of their bungling, their ineptitude and the harshness with which they have treated the elderly in this country?” she said.