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The Law Firm that paved the way to justice for thousands of survivors of institutional abuse has welcomed Victorian Government legislation that broadens the terms under which survivors can seek redress.

Slater and Gordon Principal Lawyer Andrew Baker said he understands Victoria is the first state to respond to this direct issue raised in the 2015 Redress and Civil Litigation Report of the Commonwealth Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The legislation, passed in the Legislative Assembly late last week, allows survivors of abuse to seek redress from unincorporated non-government organisations which use trusts to conduct their activities, many of which are religious organisations.

“For decades, defendants to the kinds of claims run by our clients have been able to cynically rely on the legal fiction that they lacked a legal status or personality capable of being sued. This landmark reform will help put an end to this abhorrent charade,” Mr Baker said.

“Despite some institutions stepping up and agreeing to compensate survivors in recent years, it’s frequently been far too little and far too late, with claimants left in a terrible negotiating position knowing that there may ultimately be no one there for them to seek redress from.

“The legislation passed today will ensure that both sides to such disputes are treated equally before the law – with claims to be decided on their merits, not by defendants’ legal sleight-of-hand.”

The bipartisan move by the Victorian Legislative Assembly removes one of the biggest hurdles for Victorian abuse survivors, who have faced decades of stonewalling and little chance of justice as a result.

Mr Baker said despite the publicity, survivors of abuse who had been abused in NGOs and religious organisations had very few avenues to seek redress and were often forced to settle out of court.

“They never had the chance to see the perpetrators of these crimes face trial,” Mr Baker said. “They have never had the chance to look the people who covered up these crimes - who told them they were lying - in the eye.

“What’s more, survivors of abuse have never seen their perpetrators or the people who colluded in covering up their heinous crimes, brought to account.

“They have been allowed to hide behind semantics and it’s about time they were no longer allowed to do that,” Mr Baker said.

“It’s about time they had nowhere to hide.”

Slater and Gordon first brought action on behalf of abuse survivors more than 20 years ago but it was a long road before the commencement of the Royal Commission and the various legislative changes across the country were likely to give some solace to victims.

That case and the cases that followed however were groundbreaking and resulted in a groundswell of Australians coming forward to report long and systemic abuse.

It would also be crucial evidence for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Roberto Francesco, a victim of abuse at St James Parish in Gardenvale, said the apology his family received from the Catholic Church for the abuse he endured from a priest during the 1970s would never be enough and had devastated his family members.

Roberto – who has received some support from the church thanks to legal assistance from Slater and Gordon – said that after being abused by the priest at the age of 11 he felt he could not return to school and consequently lived on the streets before finding football and working hard to get his life on track. However, the lack of education and the devastating memories of the abuse including the suicide of a friend who also suffered at the hands of the same priest would always haunt him.

“I want justice now,” Roberto said. “I want to see every single recommendation from the Royal Commission implemented because these people need to understand what they did to us.

“And the people who helped cover up their crimes, regardless of who they are, need to understand that they were complicit in the destruction of so many lives.”
Mr Baker said he will be watching it closely.

“This country has, for far too long, fallen short when it comes to providing fair redress to the survivors of institutional abuse,” Mr Baker said.

The Victorian Legal Identity Of Defendants (Organisational Child Abuse) Bill 2018 still has to pass the Victorian upper house, but it is expected to pass with bipartisan support.

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