Time Limits To Be Abolished in Child Abuse Cases

One of the barriers to victims of child abuse having their civil claims heard in a court of law has been the Statute of Limitations which is a law which says that many victims’ claims for damages are out of time.  Whilst it has always been possible for victims of historical abuse to apply for an extension of time, these applications are costly and the outcomes have been difficult to predict. Certainly the further you go back in time the less likely it has been that an extension of time will be granted.

 

Accordingly the Victorian Government’s announcement today that a bill abolishing limitations periods in child abuse cases will be presented in parliament this week is welcome news for victims of abuse and their advocates and supporters.

 

As yet the bill has not been available for comment. The previous coalition Government had put out for consultation a draft exposure bill on the abolition of time limits and we have written in a previous blog about some of the potential difficulties with respect to the proposed changes. Hopefully this Government has taken on board some of the responses to the previous government’s draft exposure bill. Angela Sdrinis Legal contributed to submissions made to Government by the Law Institute of Victoria and the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

 

The immediate advantage of the abolition of limitation periods in child abuse cases is that institutional defendants will have one less weapon in their armoury to defeat these claims and to beat down settlement sums because of the risks to claimants with respect to litigation. It will also mean that some cases which may have previously been too risky would now be likely to succeed in a court of law. However other barriers to successful litigation in historical abuse claims remain including whether religious institutions can be sued and the vicarious liability of organisations for the illegal conduct of their employees.  These issues are currently being looked at by the Royal Commission and the Labour Government has committed to taking action with respect to these issues but possibly not until the Royal Commission has handed down its recommendations.

 

The Attorney General is also quoted as saying that the new laws will also allow dependents of deceased victims, such as family members who were also impacted by the abuse to seek civil damages. (The Age 24 February 2015).  Dependents of deceased victims have always theoretically had the right to pursue damages claims under the Wrongs Act but the practical difficulties of doing so where the victim has died and in particular proving the abuse without the victim being able to give evidence are likely to mean that in reality even if the statute of limitations is abolished in dependency claims, very few of these cases are likely to see the light of day. However the Government is to be commended for thinking of the family members of victims, many of whom often suffer significant secondary trauma and loss.

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