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Government Rejects Inquiry Recommendations on Limitation Period for Child Sexual Abuse Claims

Last month, the government rejected a key proposal of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse which concerned the limitation period in which a victim can pursue a claim for injury.

The statutory inquiry report was published in 2022, after 7 years of work and an extensive review of the way in which state and non-state institutions failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. The Inquiry, along with the Truth Project, gave more than 6,000 victims and survivors of child sexual abuse an opportunity to share their experiences and put forward suggestions for change. The Truth Project stated that ‘this listening exercise was set up because the Inquiry recognised that victims and survivors could provide a uniquely-informed contribution to understanding and learning from past mistakes and improving child protection in the future’.

The report set out 20 key recommendations, one of which was to remove the 3 year limitation period for personal injury claims brought by victims. A three-year limitation period currently applies from the date of the alleged abuse or knowledge of abuse, (or from when a child turns 18), unless the court grants an extension. For this to happen the victim often has to go through a preliminary hearing in order to show to the court that a fair trial can proceed despite the passage of time.

The Inquiry heard that a 'significant number' of claims are being rejected because of the time limit. The vast majority of abuse claims are brought later than three years, because it can take ‘decades for survivors to feel able to discuss their sexual abuse’. For many, the Inquiry process was the first time that they had ever spoken about the abuse that they had suffered. Research by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse found it takes on average 26 years for victims to disclose sexual abuse. The Inquiry heard that some survivors and victims’ were too young at the time to recognise what had happened to them was abuse and many experienced numerous obstacles when trying to report their abuse to the authorities.

Following the Inquiry findings and proposals, the government has accepted that the limitation rules in their current form can act as a barrier to justice in some circumstances. They also acknowledged that the present process could add to the trauma by forcing victims to go through an additional stage of applying for an extension if outside the 3 year limitation period. This can cause the victim to relive their past experiences – without any guarantee their claim will progress. However, despite this, the government have rejected the proposal to remove the limitation period stating ‘Limitation periods are put in place across all civil claims. They work to protect justice by striking a balance between the rights of claimants to bring claims and the rights of defendants to a fair trial. It is a way of acknowledging the difficulty in establishing the facts long after the event. The quality of evidence can decline over the years, key witnesses may be unavailable or have passed away, and crucial documents destroyed. For these reasons, the government does not support the Inquiry’s recommendation to remove the limitation period entirely. However, the consultation is seeking wider views on this option.’

As an alternative to adjusting or removing the current limitation period, the government has proposed to reverse the requirement of the victim proving a fair trial can proceed despite a time lapse. Their proposal is that these types of cases would proceed automatically, unless the defendant shows it is not possible for there to be a fair hearing. Justice Minister, Lord Bellamy said of the proposals ‘…we also know limitation periods play an important role in ensuring defendants’ rights to a fair trial, which is why our proposal to reverse the burden of proof strikes the right.

The government consultation is currently ongoing and due to close on 10th July 2024. They have promised to consider all responses carefully, before publishing their response in due course.

The full report can be found here IICSA: report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

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