Government may fast track time limit law reform for child abuse cases

Time limits for assault and child abuse cases


The news that the government may fast track law reform concerning time limits in assault cases has been welcomed by lawyers at Irwin Mitchell working in the field of child abuse litigation.

Junior Constitutional Affairs Minister, Vera Baird, indicated that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill currently before the House of Lords, could be used to bring about change rather than waiting for another legislative slot. Tracey Storey, partner with national firm Irwin Mitchell, says that fast tracking this would make an immense amount of difference to people facing time limit problems when suing in relation to sexual abuse which incurred in childhood.

In all civil cases there are time limits setting out when a claim must be brought in the civil courts. For example, there is a 6 year time limit for breach of contract and a 3 time limit for negligence claims. For criminal cases there is no such restriction in theory, although in practice the older the case is, the more difficult it is to obtain evidence. The time limits are particularly unfair when it comes to cases involving historic child abuse.


Leading child abuse lawyer comments

Tracey Storey says the law as it stands now is complex and illogical. If a claim is brought against a perpetrator of abuse in assault, the time limit for issuing the case in the court is 6 years from the assault or 6 years from the Claimant's 18th birthday, whichever is the latest. The court has no general discretion to allow in late cases. So if a person achieves the necessary psychological status to speak out at age 25, it is too late and no case can be brought.

However, if a person is suing another person or organisation in negligence, the relevant time limit is 3 years either from the abuse or from the Claimant's 18th birthday. Despite this time limit being shorter, the court may consider what is known as a date of knowledge and then the claim has to be started within 3 years from this date. Additionally, the court in negligence cases have a general discretion to allow in late cases.

In practice, this means that if a person is abused by his father and the victim is now 25, the victim cannot sue his father for the acts of abuse. However, he may be able to sue his mother in negligence or for example a social services department who knew the person was at risk but failed to take action. This is of course a ridiculous situation with the abusive parent escaping civil liability but the negligent parent or organisation with a duty of care still being liable.

Very recently there has been publicity concerning high profile paedophiles including men of considerable means or abusers who have won the lottery for example. Whilst they may be punished in the criminal courts, they would escape civil liability under the present rules.

Tracey Storey comments the situation we find ourselves in under the current legal system is indeed an odd one and not necessary one replicated in other jurisdictions. For example in the Canada, there are no time limits for cases involving historic child abuse. Additionally the government is well aware of the peculiar way in which the law has developed in this area particularly following the Law Commission's report which was issued in 1998. The Law Commission suggested that the 3 and 6 year limits for negligence and assault should be abolished. Although a new Act of Parliament was drafted in 2001, this Act is yet to be implemented.

Problems with child abuse case complexities

Tracey Storey comments the Law Commission, like many professionals involved in working with people abused in childhood, saw that there were many complex reasons why it is often many years later before people are ready to speak out about traumatic abusive experiences. Abusers tend to conceal their abuse and create a climate of fear and secrecy. Victims may be threatened either psychologically or physically and the experience of abuse can engender feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment. Delays in coming forward are often a result of the fear of not being believed, or where a person or child has reported abuse previously but has simply be returned to an abusive environment. Often people will try and suppress their memories of abuse until they are triggered in later life.

It is clearly time for action to be taken by the government so that the law on time limits does not continue to absolve perpetrators who are successful in terrifying their victims into silence. High profile and moneyed abusers should be made to pay for their crimes and compensate their victims.

The anomaly with time limits came to the attention of the media when in August 2004, Iorwath Hoare, a serial rapist, won £7 million on the lottery. Hoare was serving a prison sentence for a number of rapes in the 1970s / early 1980s. Hoare's victims have tried without success so far to claim compensation from him, but the law at present does not allow for this, despite the fact that Hoare had no money during the 6 year period and only acquired assets after the time limit for bringing claims had expired. Another topical case is the multi-millionaire paedophile, William Goad. Goad, now serving a life sentence, is thought to have abused as many as 3,500 boys, some as young as 8. He is also believed to have a fortune of £25 million, which, unless the law changes, will remain untouched.

Tracey Storey says victims of sexual assault and abuse are often prevented from claiming damages from the perpetrators of sexual crime. Claiming is often of direct personal benefit to victims, in that the perpetrator is personally held to account for his crimes. The law at the moment prevents people who have been silenced for many years from coming forward and obtaining justice.

Child abuse lawyer profile

Tracey Storey is a partner at Irwin Mitchell and works in their London office. Tracey is also on the executive committee of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers and has been working in the field of child abuse litigation since 1996. The Association of Child Abuse Lawyers has launched a campaign on time limits due to concerns about the access to justice issues involved and how potentially vulnerable and traumatised people are being denied justice under the present law. Details of ACAL's campaign can be found at their website at

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