The Court of Appeal confirms that a Claimant can pursue an action for abuse decades after the relevant event; in the circumstances it was equitable to allow the claim to proceed.

Mr Raggett, who at the time of the first instance hearing was aged 50, claimed damages consequent upon sexual abuse and assault allegedly committed on him by a teacher, Father Spencer at Preston Catholic College where he was a pupil from 1969 until 1976. At first instance, it was held that (1) the abuse had taken place; (2) for the purposes of s.14 Limitation Act 1980, Mr Raggett had knowledge of the abuse from the time the acts were committed and so the claim became statute barred in June 1979; and (3) it was equitable to allow the action to proceed, exercising the powers under s.33 of the Act – to the extent that there was any prejudice in relation to the issue of causation, this was likely to operate to the detriment of Mr Raggett as he had the burden of proving his loss.

The Governors appealed against the decision that it was equitable to disapply the limitation period and allow the claim to proceed. It was contended that the Judge at first instance had been wrong to make a finding as to whether the abuse had occurred before determining whether it was appropriate to exercise her discretion pursuant to s.33. It was also argued that, in determining whether the Governors had suffered prejudice in relation to the issue of causation, the wrong principle had been applied.

Court of Appeal decision

The appeal failed, the Court of Appeal finding that:

  • There was no evidence for concluding that the manner in which the Judge had approached the issue of limitation in any way affected the substance of the way in which she exercised her discretion pursuant to s.33.
  • In line with previous authorities, the Judge at first instance had undertaken a detailed assessment of the cogency of the evidence and the potential effect of the delay on this.
  • The first instance judgment clearly detailed an analysis of the factors relevant to s.33, namely an assessment of the reasons for the delay and the cogency of Mr Raggett’s case, against the prejudice likely to be caused to the Governors.
  • The Judge had not allowed the claim to proceed because she was satisfied that the abuse had taken place and therefore there could be no prejudice.

Comment

It remains the case that the majority of claims for historic acts of sexual/physical abuse will fall at the first hurdle and be time barred pursuant to sections 11 and 14 of the Limitation Act.

Although cases will be determined on their individual facts, local authorities and insurers do need to be alert to the courts’ attitude with regard to s.33. From a risk management point of view when dealing with this type of litigation, we would offer the following practical advice:

  • Good records should be kept and documents preserved.
  • It will be necessary to trace ex-employees, particularly in cases dealing with events several decades ago.
  • Cases should be analysed at an early stage in order to identify the issues and assess the merits of the claim.