Time limits change for abuse victims

January 31, 2008
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TIME LIMITS CHANGE FOR ABUSE VICTIMS

The House of Lords today gave judgment in the case of X & Y v London Borough of Wandsworth (and related appeals). Bolt Burdon Kemp can report that not only have our clients won their claim, but they have contributed to a landmark legal ruling which ushers in a fairer limitation regime within which other victims of child abuse can bring their claims.

One of the key aspects of the appeals was to challenge a previous House of Lords’ decision, Stubbings v Webb (1993) which held that for claims involving deliberate assault, the time limit within which to bring claims was different to all other personal injury cases:

Whilst giving victims 6 years to sue from the date of the assaults (or their 18 th birthdays if later), there was no way of extending this. In their judgment, the House of Lords have overturned Stubbings, which now allows people bringing child abuse claims the same rights as other personal injury claimants in being able to extend the limitation period. This is particularly important for people who have been abused, who may not have come to terms with what happened to them until well after the 6 year time limit had expired.

“Getting their Lordships to overturn a previous House of Lords decision is no mean feat” said Jonathan Wheeler of Bolt Burdon Kemp, who represented both X and Y. “This decision is a courageous one, but inevitably the right one, and will secure justice for thousands of people in a similar position to my clients. It allows survivors of abuse to compete on a level playing field with those Defendants who previously sought to hide behind a legal anomaly to defeat their claims”.

The judgment also gives guidance on how judges should exercise their discretion in the future to allow claims through, even when they are based on events that happened many years ago. “The courts are being asked to be more generous to child abuse victims where there are understandable reasons for them bringing proceedings late” Jonathan added. “Paedophiles abuse in secret, and often threaten their victims not to tell. This combines with feelings of guilt and shame in the children who have been abused and has a profound effect on young minds, which is why many repress their experiences. No longer will abusers be able to profit from the very act of abuse itself”.

Jonathan has been spear heading a campaign to get the Government to implement the findings of the Law Commission in 2001 to reform the limitation laws. However to date the Government has failed to act, notwithstanding an enormous amount of support from clients of the firm and their MP’s. The House of Lords’ ruling in X & Y effectively implements the Law Commission’s proposals, and because this has been done by judges, as opposed to Parliament, the law will be retrospectively applied for all those who have not brought claims before.

The Legal Services Commission funded the cases of both X and Y to the House of Lords. David Keegan, Director of the High Cost Cases Group at the LSC said “The Legal Services Commission is delighted to have funded cases which make up this landmark judgment in the House of Lords. It means that it will now be possible to bring claims for abuse that happened many years ago, which were previously disallowed on the basis of limitation, and this is a milestone for victims of abuse. It’s the latest example of legal aid’s continuing commitment to funding precedentsetting cases in child abuse law.”

Click here to view the judgment

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