In a submission to the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, Slater and Gordon executive and lawyer Hayden Stephens has called for the creation of a national redress scheme to address the needs and wishes of victims of institutionalised sexual abuse.
Slater and Gordon’s submission is in response to the Royal Commission’s Redress and Civil Litigation Consultation Paper.
Mr Stephens, who has represented hundreds of child abuse victims, has provided a number of recommendations to the Royal Commission to advocate for improved access to justice for child abuse survivors.
“Over the past 20 years we have acted for hundreds of survivors of child sexual abuse in claims involving the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, and various other religious and secular institutions such as the Fairbridge Foundation,” he said.
“We know the extent and severity of the horrendous harm that was caused to children who were in the care of these institutions.
“We also know first-hand the difficult path survivors have travelled in our justice system; a system which has allowed large and resourceful defendants such as the Catholic Church, Christian Brothers and governments to adopt technical and complex legal manoeuvring to avoid liability.
“A redress scheme could help cut a new path for survivors. It has been widely acknowledged that providing some form of redress which addresses their needs and wishes is of critical and urgent importance.”
He said that child abuse survivors should have access to compensation under a uniform, national redress scheme.
He points out that survivors should still retain access to the courts but calls upon legislators to remove technical defences currently available to church defendants and governments.
“Unfortunately we are seeing institutions and governments persistently use legal tactics to obfuscate and drag out civil proceedings to deny victims justice,” he said.
“A national compensation scheme would mean child abuse survivors could avoid expensive, lengthy and unpleasant legal battles if they didn’t wish to pursue legal action.
“We strongly suggest that a workable and fair redress scheme be funded by all institutions and government organisations responsible for the care of children.
“Organisations that hold greater culpability should bear the greatest financial responsibility and any shortfalls should be met by contributions from the Commonwealth, and state and territory governments.
“It would require the Commonwealth Government to take the lead in the development and implementation of this, but it would also require involvement by state and territory governments, as well as institutions.”
Mr Stephens made reference to claims now on foot in court and called upon defendants in these civil actions to heed the call of survivors for fairer treatment.
“This legal manoeuvring by large resourceful defendants cannot continue. I would urge all defendants to act as model litigants in current and future cases and instruct their legal representatives to open pathways to early resolution.”
He said institutions should also offer and provide an apology to victims, and provide an assurance that action has been taken to protect against further abuse.
“We strongly believe that there should be a direct personal response from the institution,” he said.
“An apology, an assurance that the abuse will not continue, as well as an opportunity to meet with senior representatives from the institution would all be appropriate approaches to make the experience more meaningful for survivors – but only if requested by the victim.
“As part of a redress process, institutions should also be required to provide all materials, documents and information to which they have retained access.”
Mr Stephens said the submission also suggests that a specialised Commonwealth Government counselling scheme, developed around the specific needs and experiences of survivors, be made available on a voluntary basis. He said victims should also be able to access alternative services, with financial support.
“In our view, this Royal Commission represents an important step towards providing access to justice to those brave survivors who have to date been denied fairness,” he said.
“We recognise that a history of broken promises weighs heavily on survivors, and that the responsibility for ensuring that this Royal Commission results in real and lasting change lies with all of us.”