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Abuse inquiry calls for changes to civil justice system

Jay: Many claimants are left retraumatised and deeply unsatisfied

Codes of practice for defendants responding to civil claims of child sexual abuse and a review of the law of limitation are among the ideas to deliver redress to victims put forward in a major report.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse said neither the criminal nor civil justice system was able to deliver effective redress, with many people finding the processes baffling, frustrating, hostile and futile.

The report [1] on its accountability and reparations investigation, which focuses on the aftermath of child sexual abuse and the legal process of claiming compensation, heard from 40 witnesses including insurance brokers, lawyers, police officers and survivors.

The inquiry found that, while some survivors said no amount of money could make up for what they had been through, others wanted damages to recognise the abuse and to compensate for lost education or unfulfilled careers.

Many simply sought acknowledgement or an apology from the institution where the abuse took place, while others spoke of having their “day in court”.

The investigation considered five key case studies from the 1960s to the present day: North Wales children’s homes; Forde Park school in Devon; St Leonard’s children’s home in London; St Aidan’s and St Vincent’s children’s homes in Cheshire and Merseyside; and Stanhope Castle school in County Durham.

The report said survivors of these institutions said the civil process was emotionally challenging and compounded the trauma they had already suffered as children.

Many became embroiled in litigation with insurers which spanned decades or felt they were treated unfairly in court, while some who successfully proved their case on the facts were ultimately turned down due to limitation.

It also emerged that criminal compensation orders were very rarely used in child sexual abuse cases, with survivors often completely unaware of their existence.

Meanwhile, many witnesses said they struggled to access the right support, including advocacy or health services.

Specifically on the civil justice system, the report said there was “a compelling need for claims by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to be treated differently from other forms of personal injury litigation”.

Saying the Local Government Association and the Association of British Insurers should each produce codes of practice for responding to civil claims of child sexual abuse, it explained: “The effects of child sexual abuse on victims and survivors can be lifelong and devastating.

“Defendants, including local authorities and insurers, must take this into account when responding to civil claims, together with the fact that claimants may struggle to disclose details of their abuse and to initiate and engage with the process of litigation.

“Claimants should be treated with sensitivity and defendants should recognise that the provision of explanations, apologies, reassurance and access to specialist therapy and support may be as important (or more important) to them than the receipt of financial compensation.”

The inquiry said the codes should also include guidance that the defence of limitation should only be used in exceptional circumstances, and encourage the parties to use single joint experts.

It called for defendant institutions to be able to make apologies, offers of treatment and other redress without undermining their ability to defend civil claims.

“The Compensation Act 2006 is intended to facilitate this but cannot do so if defendant insurers consider that its wording may not apply to claims involving allegations of vicarious liability for the actions of individual abusers.”

The report also called for the Department for Work and Pensions to work with the Association of British Insurers to introduce a national register of public liability insurance policies, and that the Judicial College should guidance on personal injury damages should include a freestanding section on the damages that may be appropriate in cases of child sexual abuse.

“This new section of the guidelines should advise the court to take into account the nature and severity of the abuse itself, any short-term and long-term physical, emotional and psychiatric or psychological injuries, and the general effect of the abuse on the claimant’s capacity to function throughout their life.

“The latter may include the ability to sustain personal and sexual relationships, to benefit from education and to undertake paid employment.”

Further, the report said the International Underwriting Association of London should take the lead in producing a code akin to the Rehabilitation Code for the benefit of claimants

It also urged increased signposting of criminal and civil compensation in the Victims Code.

Professor Alexis Jay, chair of the inquiry, said: “For victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, the suffering does not stop when the abuse ends. In our investigation we found that the criminal and civil court proceedings for redress can be frustrating, hostile and ultimately futile.

“Many are left retraumatised and deeply unsatisfied with the often lengthy and confusing litigation. Equally concerning is the lack of clear signposting for the compensation and support which survivors could be entitled to.

“The panel and I hope this report and its recommendations can help make seeking redress a less complex and distressing process for extremely vulnerable people.”

The inquiry is to investigate two further issues in a public hearing in November: whether the law of limitation should be reformed to make it easier for victims and survivors to bring claims in respect of non-recent child sexual abuse; and the potential for a redress scheme to offer accountability and reparation to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.

Following a previous report from the inquiry, the Civil Justice Council will shortly publish its view on affording child abuse claimants the same protections as vulnerable witnesses in criminal court cases.