Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
Unwillingness by Government to settle with the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA) on behalf of victims of the Armadale fire in 2010 has forced the child-advocacy body to institute legal action to seek compensation for the girls.
The OCA - a commission of Parliament established in 2004 out of the Child Care and Protection Act - will have its first day in court on behalf of some of the victims in July 2014, almost four years after the tragedy which left seven girls dead and several others nursing physical and emotional scars.
According to Children's Advocate Diahann Gordon-Harrison, the OCA resorted to court action after negotiations for compensation between itself and the Office of the Attorney General broke down.
"As you know, our office advocates on behalf of children, and we thought that on the basis of what transpired at Armadale the State had, in fact, done a great wrong to the victims, and so we entered into negotiations with the Attorney General's Chambers.
"We sought to have negotiations with a view of securing settlement for the various girls who survived the fire, and also for the estates of those who died," explained Gordon-Harrison.
She said the Office of the Attorney General was not inclined to settle without going to court, and the OCA took up the challenge.
"Yes, they were not minded to settle, and we indicated that we were going to institute a lawsuit against the Government to secure compensation for the girls. And we have, in fact, done that."
The route to court action has been long and tedious, however.
"In terms of how discussions have unfolded though, where we are at now, there was very heavy reference to what was called the cottage dorm, where the fire broke out. For those girls who were in the immediate area, they (Government) have now indicated that they will hold discussions with a view to settling," Gordon Harrison disclosed.
At least four girls could be compensated through those discussions.
However, the OCA is arguing that compensation should be paid to "any girl injured or traumatised as a result of being present at the facility on the night the fire broke out".
The country was thrown into shock when news broke that five teenagers who were wards of the State perished in the fire that engulfed a section of the facility.
Even more shock and anger would overtake the nation in the days after, when conflicting arguments emerged about the conditions there. In addition to the dead, 10 others suffered burns and were hospitalised, with one later transferred to the Kingston Public Hospital.
Three of the victims who died on the night of the fire were 17 years old, and two were aged 15 years.
"Not all of them in that dorm died. What we are arguing now is the amount. We did our legal research and looked at similar cases with a view of coming up with what we believed is a suitable amount. They have essentially counter-offered with far less," said the OCA head.
Gordon-Harrison would not disclose the level of the compensation sought by her office, but said its offer was countered with less than 50 per cent of what was proposed.
"I don't want to say what we are asking for because we are still in negotiations. I can tell you that we have refused the first offer and they said they would come back again with a better offer. But still below what we are asking for. The first offer was less than 50 per cent, but I can't tell you what the second offer was," she stated.
However, in relation to the other girls, Gordon-Harrison said there was "point-blank refusal to settle".
"We have actually instituted claims in the Supreme Court and we have consistently, since Armadale, being setting aside sums in our budget, sums to cover legal fees and all costs associated with instituting the claims. It's a recurrent item on our budget since the fire, and since we have started the process," she stated.
Gordon-Harrison noted that not all Armadale victims are represented by the OCA as some have retained private counsel.
The fire and attendant issues led to a commission of enquiry.