Changes to the Statute of Limitations for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse

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In 2013 the Commonwealth Government established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse claims. One of the Commission’s recommendations was for the removal of the limitation period under the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to bring personal injury claims. This year, the Queensland Government introduced a Bill in response to this recommendation. If the amendments pass, it will take the effect of retrospectively abolishing the 3 year time limit that is currently in place under numerous pieces of legislation including the Limitation of Actions Act 1974, the Personal Injuries Proceedings Act 2002, Civil Liability Act 2003 and the Civil Proceedings Act 2011.

The amendments recognise that it can take on average up to 20 years for victims of sexual abuse to speak openly about their abuse. Under the current law a limitation period can be extended only if certain conditions are met. However these conditions are very difficult to satisfy and claims can still be struck out on the court’s discretion. The abolishment of the time limitation will make it significantly easier for victims to pursue civil claims.

Limitation periods in NSW and Victoria

Victoria and NSW have already abolished their limitation periods for child sexual abuse. In February 2015 the Victorian Attorney-General introduced the Limitation of Actions Amendment (Child Abuse) Act 2015 which provides that the time limitation restrictions do not apply to injuries from sexual abuse, physical abuse or psychological abuse that arise from sexual or physical abuse of a minor. The amendments came in response to the Victorian Parliamentary Committee report – Betrayal of Trust: Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations (November 2013).

NSW introduced a similar Limitation of Actions Amendment (Child Abuse) Act 2016 in March 2016. The Act removes the time limits as they apply to civil claims for child sexual abuse. The amendments also came in response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

Proposed Queensland amendments

The Limitation of Actions (Institutional Child Sexual Abuse) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016  is Queensland’s proposal to its legislative framework.

The Bill proposes the following:

  • An action for damages relating to the personal injury of a person resulting from the sexual abuse of the person in an institutional context when the person was a child—
    • (a) may be brought at any time; and
    • (b) is not subject to a limitation period under an Act or law or rule of law.

‘Institution’ is given a wide definition to mean: ‘an entity (whether existing or no longer existing, whether or not incorporated, and however described) that provides or provided activities, facilities, programs or services of any kind that gives or gave an opportunity for a person to have contact with a child.

The Court will retain its discretion to summarily dismiss or permanently stay proceedings if the lapse in time would mean that the defendant could not be granted a fair trial.

Member for Cairns, Mr Rob Pyne MP has also introduced a private members Bill with similar removal provisions that extend to claims against non-institutions and for physical abuse and neglect.

What do the amendments mean for Queensland claimants?

If the Bill is passed the retrospective status of the proposed amendments will benefit both future and previous claimants. Claimants who had previously been barred from bringing actions will now be able to reopen their claims. Claimants could potentially have access to the full heads of damages including general damages, medical expenses and economic loss.

The retrospective status of the amendments is likely to cause a significant increase in the number of claims being brought. The Commission’s Report recommends that where institutions are faced with an increased number of claims that measures be taken to limit the costs associated with litigation by offering to investigate and settle claims.

Public hearings and submissions on both bills have now closed. Queensland now awaits the Bill’s progress when Parliament reconvenes in early 2017. Bi-partisan political support is expected for the Government’s proposed amendments and the Bill is likely to be enacted in 2017.