A recent report reveals that previous estimates of child abuse claims are vastly inaccurate; these cases are substantially under reported. Incidents of child abuse are thought to be eight times higher than previous figures suggest, creating a massive pool of potential litigants. The child abuse claims storm is about to hit, so how can you be prepared?

The facts

The report published this week by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, examining child sex abuse in England, has found that only 1 in 8 children who experience sex abuse come to the attention of the police or other authorities. So whilst 50,000 cases were reported in the two years to March 2014, it is estimated that the actual number of incidents occurring during that period is nearer 450,000.

Since the Jimmy Saville investigation in 2012, the issue of child abuse has rarely been off the front pages. The NSPCC commented earlier this year that there had been a surge in the number of incidents being reported, with 31,000 in the year to April 2014, an increase of 8,500 on the previous year, but it has long been suspected that these cases are only the “tip of the iceberg”.

There have been, and are ongoing, a number of high profile investigations into child abuse within the care sector affecting local authorities and private care homes across the country. Allegations range from low level bullying between children, to serious sexual assaults and endemic abuse by carers but they always hit the headlines. The healthcare professions are, as their very name suggests, required to “care” for us all, and when they fail, to the detriment of the welfare of our children the impact on the profession can be profound.

Impact on Claims?

As there has been an increase in the number of incidents reported in recent years, so has there been an increase in claims for compensation by the victims of the abuse. Because the number of unreported incidents is unknown so is the size of the pool of potential claims, and healthcare organisations are now facing claims for damages, losses and costs which they are unable to predict or control, and which are far in excess of previous estimated.

The so called “compensation culture” has been blamed, in certain circles, for an increase in claims arising out of child sex abuse with lawyers at the centre of the argument, allegedly fanning the flames by seeking high damages awards, and putting pressure on the courts to apply the current laws relating to limitation, vicarious and occupier’s liability more loosely. There has also been an element of panic buying insurance to cover the unknown. Those criticisms may or may not be fairly levied but there is no denying that the publicity surrounding these claims has done more to encourage people to come forward than decades of legislation and policy.

What can you do?

It must of course be right that those subjected to such harrowing experiences should be encouraged to report them, and claims arising out of those incidents ought not to be discouraged but they often come to light decades after the incidents occur. This causes often insurmountable difficulties with not only identifying the correct Defendant (as company names and structures change over time) but also with tracing witnesses,  and understanding what the care provider’s policies and procedures were at the time. Claims arising out of historical incidents are, as a result, very difficult to defend. The trick is to be able to investigate them quickly, make the liability decision quickly, and settle those which are to be settled quickly and fairly to minimise any adverse publicity.

So how can you weather the storm? Being forewarned is being forearmed and this means knowing your full historical identity, whether as a private company or public body, and your insurance history as far back as possible. Retaining records for as long as possible and knowing where to find them should you need to, is key.

The issue of child sex abuse is likely to remain in the headlines and healthcare providers and insurers will continue to face the risk of claims for many years to come but implementing a records management process now and pulling together your insurance history is the only way to be confident that such claims can be faced openly and fairly.