One of the largest child abuse class actions has just been started against a Catholic children’s home. Jo Chapman of Bolt Burdon Kemp explains to Neasa MacErlean how a fairly small group of specialist lawyers work together on such cases...

Yet another class action has just been launched against a Catholic institution – a class action representing 140 men who used to live in St William’s Community Home in Market Weighton, East Yorkshire. Damages could run into millions of pounds – as it is alleged that a brutal regime of sexual and physical abuse was allowed to run unchecked for 30 years.

This case could, in fact, be one of the last of its kind. ‘A lot of the group actions over the last few years have emerged as a result of care home regimes that were in place in the 50s, 60s and 70s,’ says Jo Chapman of Bolt Burdon Kemp. ‘We are not going to see very many more people coming forward. They don’t have the same numbers of new police investigations now – so there aren’t the same numbers of applications coming forward.’

A couple of associations - the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers’ child abuse specialist group – have been vital in helping a fairly small number of solicitors and barristers handle these challenging (not to mention emotionally draining) cases. They are ‘absolutely essential’, says Chapman. Group actions have come out of these organizations which have helped match up clients from the same care homes.

Lawyers have built up a lot of specialist knowledge in these cases. ‘With group actions, it’s often the case that the action comes about because of a criminal conviction,’ says Chapman. ‘If there are criminal convictions and a number of people making similar allegations, the evidence is in favour of the claimants. The question then is how much are the claims worth.’ Many actions end up being settled.

A particular problem for claimants in this field has been time limits. Many claims are brought against the employers for negligently not protecting children in their care – rather than being brought against the individuals who are accused of abuse. The courts can exercise some discretion on time limits for negligence claims but has no such power on claims of assault. However, Jonathan Wheeler, a colleague of Chapman’s at Bolt Burdon Kemp, is waiting for funding on a test case which would be heard at the House of Lords and which, if successful, would broaden the area of discretion to cover more cases. ‘We are trying to argue that an employee who abuses a child has a duty to report his own abuse,’ says Chapman. So an abuser would not only be guilty of assault but also of negligence – and the more open time limits, under the negligence rules, would then apply. The High Court of Australia in July decided on the case of Stingel v Clark and gave a judgment which would be helpful to this line of argument.

It remains to be seen whether new kinds of abuse claims will emerge in relation to the 70s, 80s and onwards. ‘The regime changed – in that the policy of childcare departments was to move towards foster care,’ says Chapman. ‘We have had some claims in relation to foster care.’

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