When Justice Catches Up

By Cirell, Stephen; Bennett, John | Public Finance, March 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

When Justice Catches Up


Cirell, Stephen, Bennett, John, Public Finance


The recent police investigation on Jersey into child abuse at the former Haut de la Garenne children's home has already led to the first criminal charges. The home was closed down in 1986 and it is only now, more than 20 years later, that former residents are coming forward to claim abuse.

While the impact on their lives can only be imagined, a recent House of Lords case does at least open up the possibility in England and Wales of civil damages for those who suffered injury from sexual abuse many years ago.

The Lords have recognised that it is wrong that claims for personal injuries caused by sexual assaults should automatically be time-barred, bearing in mind that such injuries are often caused to children who might not appreciate the significance of the actions they have suffered until many years after the event.

The case therefore has wide significance across the public sector, because local authorities and their insurers might now face claims for abuse going back many years.

This new ruling came about in cases covering six claimants who had each sought to argue that they were entitled to compensation for unrelated acts of sexual abuse suffered years previously: A v Hoare; X and another v Wandsworth London Borough Council; C v Middlesbrough Council; H v Suffolk County Council; Young v Catholic Care (Diocese of Leeds) [2008] UKHL 6. The most publicised of these was the case involving lorworth Hoare who subsequently won the Lottery, hence the tabloid title, 'the Lotto rapist'.

The claimants' actions against various defendants had all failed before the Court of Appeal, because they were brought outside of the statutory limitation period. The Lords judgment means that the limitation period will now be applied more sympathetically in child abuse cases.

To understand the legal basis of the ruling, it is necessary to understand the concept of the limitation period. Generally speaking, claims for intentional injuries to children must be brought within six years of the date of the age of majority. In the case of abuse of a child, a strict application of the limitation period could clearly lead to injustice, because the child might not have appreciated the impact of the injuries until some years after the event, as has been illustrated by the Jersey case, which is currently unfolding.

The six claimants before the Lords argued that their claims were based on the limitation period that applies to personal injuries caused by 'negligence, nuisance or breach of duty', rather than by direct injury. …

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