Claimant not allowed to pursue claims in relation to abuse decades after the relevant events.
The Claimant, known as TCD, sought damages from three local authorities in respect of historic child abuse. She is now nearly 42 years old and the allegations related to the period between 1975 and 1981 when she was 8 to 14 years old. The essence of her complaint was that she was allowed to live with a man called DH despite the fact he had convictions for sexual offences going back to the early 1960s. The sole issue to be determined by the High Court was whether the claims were statute barred. The question to be decided was whether TCD had relevant knowledge for the purposes of S.14 of the Limitation Act 1980, and if she did, the court’s discretion under s.33 should be exercised to allow for her to continue the proceedings.
Held: By at least the age of 18 TCD was fixed with knowledge of the factual allegations underlying her claim in respect of each of the Defendants for the purposes of s.14. In respect of Harrow Council, there was a very serious prejudice brought about largely by the long delay. There was no sufficient justification for imposing on the council a trial relating to historic allegations in respect of which its bank of information had been seriously depleted. With regard to Worcestershire County Council, there was no sufficient evidence of a breach of duty such that justice required disapplication of the limitation period. Finally, in relation to Birmingham City Council, a fair trial would not be possible after so many years.
Comment: In January 2008 the House of Lords held in A v Hoare and associated cases that s.11 of the Limitation Act (as opposed to s.2) applied to cases of deliberate assault, meaning that claimants could ask the courts to exercise their discretion to extend the limitation period under s.33. Following this decision, the concern was that victims of abuse could potentially bring claims for compensation many years after the events occurred. This was however subject to their being able to show that a fair trial was still possible. TCD’s claim illustrates that in many cases it will be possible for defendants to show that this will not be the case, in particular where, as in this case, the period of delay was extensive. This decision will reassure local authorities and other organisations potentially facing claims that there is scope for challenging claims brought some time after the relevant events.
Success in such challenges is not however certain. In a recent county court case, Robinson v Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council (2008) an assault claim was allowed to proceed under s.33 even though the alleged abuser was dead. The Judge held that there was no real prejudice because the abuser could probably have added little to his previous denials had he given evidence. However, it is arguable that the Judge’s reasoning was suspect and we understand that permission to appeal against this decision has been given.