While it’s good that Queensland is following NSW to remove claims limitation periods that have previously blocked claims made more than three years after abuse occurred, the Queensland plan is flawed.
Victims of child sexual and physical abuse will no longer face tough limitation periods when seeking compensation in NSW. Reports state about 22,000 people are expected to benefit from the change.
Following repeated calls for Queensland to fall into line with NSW’s stance, the Queensland Government is introducing legislation to end the three year time limit period in this state. But the move is baffling because it only applies to victims of sexual abuse by, at or connected to institutions.
The issue has now been further complicated by a second piece of proposed legislation, a private member's bill by independent MP Rob Pyne, which would remove claims time limits for all victims.
As one of Queensland’s most senior personal injury lawyers, I am troubled that the State’s proposed legislation would create two classes of victims.
Under the State’s plan the time limits would be removed, for example, for victims of paedophile priests or teachers or offenders from an organisation, but not for people abused by a family member or a neighbour or a stranger. It doesn’t make sense.
Under existing Queensland law, a child who has been sexually abused generally only has three years from when they turn 18 to bring a civil action to court.
I can think of no reason why the waiving of time limits should be restricted to only certain victims.
The anticipated legislation does not mean, however, that there will not be hurdles to be crossed by victims of sexual assault that are decades old.
The court will still have the discretion to be able to dismiss a claim if, for example, the passing of time has meant that an institution or alleged perpetrator can show that the ability to defend the claim has been compromised by the death of important witnesses and the destruction of relevant files.
I applaud the Government for its Bill, but feel there is merit in extending its coverage beyond institutions.
A person abused by a neighbour or a wicked relative or a stranger should have the same legal rights to compensation as the victim of a teacher or a priest.
Extending coverage to all victims won’t necessarily open a floodgate of claims.
For complex and sometimes not readily understood reasons, many victims assaulted as children don’t come forward until many years later. The Rolf Harris prosecutions in Britain are an example of this.
Queensland law needs to recognise this underappreciated aspect of bringing claims years after the abuse.
For example I have seen many victims of abuse from priests who did not come forward until they were in their 40s to 60s. They had hoped it would all “just go away” but the trauma stays with them and becomes intolerable.
I have acted for people who sought redress from the Catholic Church for abuse suffered from priests decades ago.
Through the Catholic Church’s Toward Healing program, victims were given an apology, offered counselling and what was often a modest financial reparation as a sign of the church’s regret.
Because of Queensland’s three year time limit period it is difficult to run an action against the churches, but removing the limitation period will create a level playing field for victims.
We owe it to abuse victims to remove unfair legal barriers against their claims.
Mark O'Connor is an accredited injury compensation law specialist and a director with Brisbane firm Bennett & Philp Lawyers.