As a victim of sexual abuse or sexual assault, can I sue the abuser?

If you are a victim of sexual assault and/or rape, as well as reporting the abuser to the police in order to commence criminal proceedings against them, you can also potentially sue the abuser for compensation, in recognition of the wrong inflicted by them upon you.

What is the difference between criminal proceedings and civil proceedings?

Criminal proceedings refer to the legal process of prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing perpetrators of crime. The purpose of such proceedings is to determine whether a person is guilty or innocent of a criminal offence, and therefore, whether they should be punished. If guilty, the perpetrator will be punished in accordance with legislation and the sentencing guidelines.

These proceedings follow the initial investigation of a crime by the police. Once the police refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the CPS take the lead on building a case against the perpetrator and presenting the case in court. Therefore, the victim(s) of a crime do not bring a criminal case against the perpetrator themselves (except in private prosecutions, which are rare, and beyond the scope of this post). Rather, it is the state, through the CPS, which prosecutes the perpetrator in a criminal case, in recognition of the wrong being committed not just against the individual, but society as a whole.

By contrast, broadly speaking, civil claims involve one individual (“the Claimant”) suing another (“the Defendant”), usually for compensation in an attempt to, insofar as is possible, “right the wrongs” committed against them.

In civil claims, the individual who has been wronged is responsible for building and bringing the case against the wrongdoer. Therefore, civil proceedings are different from criminal proceedings both in relation to their purpose and the legal process that is followed.

Sexual abuse in criminal and civil proceedings

There are a wide variety of criminal offences that encompass different forms of sexual abuse. What the abuser will eventually be charged and convicted with will depend on the nature and context of the abuse, and the evidence available.

In respect of civil proceedings for the sexual assault or abuse itself, the claim will generally fall under the more broad headings of the torts of assault and battery (also known as trespass to the person). Any unwanted touching of one person by another will fall under these headings. It may also lead to a claim for false imprisonment.

If sexual abuse is inflicted by an individual in connection with their role in a state body, department or institution, (e.g. a police officer, probation officer, and so forth) then you may also have a claim under the Human Rights Act 1998 for breach of your human rights. This is because Human Rights Act claims can only be brought against the state, not private individuals.

Will the abuser be able to compensate me?

This is a very important question and is essential to consider before commencing a civil claim against the abuser.

As the purpose of a civil claim in this context would usually be to obtain compensation from the abuser, one of the first things you have to consider is whether the abuser has the funds, or assets, to be able to afford to pay the compensation.

If the abuser perpetrated the abuse in connection with their work within an organisation, such as a school, religious institution or a local authority, you may be able to claim compensation from that organisation instead. Such organisations will be more likely to be able to pay out compensation, as they will likely have insurance in place.

Another option available to you if the proposed Defendant is unlikely to have the funds to pay out compensation, is to make a compensation claim to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA). The CICA is a government body which was set up to compensate victims of crime. It makes financial awards to those who have suffered physical and/or psychological injury caused by a criminal offence committed against them.

How is compensation calculated?

Compensation is calculated by reference to relevant rules and caselaw. A proportion of the damages may reflect your pain, suffering and “loss of amenity” (which refers, for example, to the extent to which the abuse has affected your ability to enjoy the things you used to enjoy). You can also claim for any financial losses, such as money you have spent (or will have to spend) on medical or psychological treatment (including for example therapy), and for your loss of earnings, if the abuse has affected your ability to work.

Claims under the CICA scheme are calculated by reference to the CICA guidance and is subject to various limits.

By when must I formally start civil proceedings in court?

Generally speaking, for claims of assault, battery and false imprisonment involving personal injury, the deadline to bring a claim (i.e. formally start civil proceedings in court) is three years from the date of the assault or abuse. However, the court has discretion to allow claims after that deadline; hence, it is not uncommon for historic sexual abuse claims to be brought against the abuser many years after the abuse occurred.

For claims under the Human Rights Act 1998, the deadline to bring a claim is one year less one day. Again, the court has discretion to allow claims to be brought after this deadline where is “equitable” to do so having regard to all the circumstances.

For CICA claims, the deadline to bring a claim is two years from when the abuse occurred, but as above, in some cases the CICA can consider waiving the time limit.

If you were a child or lacked capacity when the abuse occurred, this can affect the relevant time limits.

In any event, we recommend that you seek legal representation as soon as possible and before the time limits expire, where possible.

What if I want to complain or bring a claim about the way the police and/or CPS handled the investigation / prosecution of the perpetrator?

It is possible to sue the police and/or CPS for the way in which they handled the investigation and/or prosecution in a sexual assault and/or sexual abuse case. We have written a blog about this here.

If you would like to take action against a person who has sexually abused you, contact Saunders Law who will be able to advise you on the appropriate course of action.




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