The Claimant in KCR v The Scout Association [2016] EWHC 597 (QB) suffered sustained abuse by a Cub Scout Group Leader when a young boy in the 1980s. In 2003 the abuser was convicted of a large number of sexual offences against boys including the Claimant. As might be expected, given recent trends in this area of law, the Defendant admitted that it was vicariously liable for the abuser’s actions. The court was therefore concerned solely with the assessment of damages. The case had one feature that is depressingly common and one that is rather unusual. It is also, in more general terms, a helpful illustration of how courts may approach the difficult issues that cases of this kind throw up.

It is often the case that victims of abuse are peculiarly vulnerable individuals. Sometimes this gives the abuser the opportunity to perpetrate abuse (for example, if a child is in care) or prevents the abuse being detected (because there is no-one the child can trust enough to confide in). The correlation (or at least frequent concurrence) of pre-existing vulnerability and abuse makes determining issues of causation in such cases difficult, because children who have experienced traumatic childhoods may already be destined to lead difficult adult lives in any event.

In this case, the Claimant’s parents separated when he was four or five years old after his father had been violent towards his mother. He began using drugs in his teens and subsequently obtained his income principally from drug-dealing, with the exception of a few short-lived periods when he was in employment. He had a number of convictions for offences relating to drugs, firearms, dishonesty and violence.

The Claimant contended that he was entitled to a Blamire award for loss of earnings, past and future, on the basis that his inability to find sustained employment was a result of the abuse he had suffered. The Defendant accepted that the Claimant was entitled to general damages, but disputed the loss of earnings claim, contending that it was his “lifestyle choices” rather than the abuse that had prevented him being in sustained employment. The Defendant further contended that, even if factual causation was established, much of the Claimant’s loss should be deemed irrecoverable as a matter of public policy because it arose from the consequences of the Claimant’s own criminal conduct. After a careful analysis of the facts, the court preferred the Defendant’s case on causation. As a result, it did not have to go on to consider the application of the ex turpi maxim. It assessed general damages at £48,000 and dismissed the claim for aggravated damages with reference to Richard v Howie [2004] EWCA Civ 1127.

The unusual feature of the case was that at the time he was subject to the abuse, and for some time afterwards, the Claimant and another boy effectively blackmailed the abuser when they realised they could demand from him rewards of money and material possessions in return for keeping quiet about the abuse. The Defendant contended that it should be given credit for the sums thereby extorted from the abuser by the Claimant. It was prayed in aid in support of this submission that the Claimant had himself described the payments in his witness statement to the police as “compensation”.

Such a submission is so obviously unattractive that it is perhaps surprising that it was ever advanced and it is not at all surprising that it was rejected by the judge, who held (a) that the payments were gifts and hence could not properly be considered as compensation and (b) that as a matter of public policy the Claimant’s damages should not be reduced as the Defendant suggested.

The judge reached the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons. The payments were not gifts; they were, on the facts, part of a bargain between the Claimant and the abuser whereby the abuser sought to buy the Claimant’s silence so that he could continue to perpetrate abuse (of the Claimant and of others). The real reason the Defendant was not entitled to credit for the payments was that they did not relate to the subject matter of the claim, which was damages for the effect of the abuse on the Claimant in terms of pain, suffering, anguish etc. The abuser made the payments so that he could continue his abuse, not to compensate the Claimant for the effects of that abuse.

Because the Defendant’s contention could have been dismissed for that reason, the resort to public policy was unnecessary and possibly unhelpful for future cases where the same or similar issues arise. There may be cases where it would be appropriate for a defendant to be given credit for payments made by an abuser. Suppose an abuser later repented of their abuse and wrote to their former victim expressing contrition for the harm they had caused and enclosing a cheque which the victim banked. Such cases are likely to be exceptional, but as and when they do occur then on what principle of public policy should a defendant who was vicariously liable for the abuser’s actions not be entitled to have that payment taken into account? There will be cases at the margins which will be difficult to decide, but the principle that should be applied remains whether the payments were genuinely compensatory or whether, as here, they were really the price that the abuser was willing to pay to avoid detection.

A victim extorting money from an abuser may be unusual but it is not unprecedented. A case that sticks in the mind from criminal law lectures is R v Camplin (“the chapati pan case”) where the defendant murdered his abuser, who he had been blackmailing in return for not revealing the abuse of another boy called “Jumbo”: see the report from the Court of Appeal [1978] QB 254 at 257C. Many of the abuse cases currently working their way through the courts involve wealthy abusers who may have made payments to their victims. How to treat those payments is therefore an issue which the courts are likely to have to address again before too long.