Child abuse: seeking justice

In view of recent high-profile government operations and the forthcoming national child abuse inquiry, it is no surprise that abuse compensation claims have increased dramatically over the last few years.

However, it is important to recognise that not all abuse is carried out by celebrities and in fact abusers are usually known to the survivor and can often be family members or people in positions of power such as community group leaders.

As a lawyer in the area of personal injury, sensitivity and empathy are two of the most important qualities you must possess. Clients are lay members of the public who generally have no understanding of the legal process and can find the idea of a legal claim intimidating. The high point of the job is in winning a client’s confidence and achieving a result that will change their lives for the better.

The nature of my work is to assist the head of our Birmingham abuse team, working on a range of matters including social services failure to remove claims and historical child abuse litigation. My current role involves everything from taking initial enquiries and meeting with new clients, through to attendance at settlement meetings and accompanying counsel to approval hearings at court.

Following a criminal investigation, there are many different avenues a survivor of abuse may pursue in holding a perpetrator accountable for their crimes. Depending on the circumstances in which the abuse occurred, a survivor may be able to make a claim against the perpetrator as an individual. Sometimes, however, there may be wider issues to consider and it may be more appropriate to claim against an organisation such as the perpetrator’s employer.

The initial objectives of many abuse survivors can sometimes be at tension with what the civil law is able to achieve. Survivors will often enquire seeking justice and punishment against a perpetrator and, while a sense of justice is often a by-product of the process, the very nature of a civil claim is remedial as opposed to punitive. As a junior lawyer it is gratifying to be able to assist clients in finding that degree of closure; whether through financial compensation, an apology, or by holding the organisation to account who failed in their duty of care.

As a general rule in personal injury, an individual has three years from the date of an accident to commence legal proceedings at court. If an individual is under the age of 18 at the time of an accident, this limitation will run out when the individual reaches 21.

In cases of abuse and neglect, the courts are duly alert to the fact that survivors may take years before they are ready to disclose. While there are often arguments between Defendant and Claimant solicitors about bringing a case ‘out of time’, the courts are able to exercise discretion to admit claims far outside of these limitations. The court will, however, consider many different factors before exercising this discretion, notably whether a fair trial is still possible based on the available evidence.

Fortunately legal aid is still available for cases involving child abuse. Not all law firms have the benefit of a legal aid franchise and so it is important for survivors to check this when making enquiries.

Scott Tolliss is a paralegal at Irwin Mitchell

Further reading