The recession and the baby Peter case have led to a sharp increase in the number of compensation claims lodged against councils for historic child abuse, law firm Browne Jacobson has said.
The firm is advising councils across the country on more than 35 claims by individuals who say that their social services department failed to protect them from abusive family members or carers.
Sarah Erwin-Jones, a partner in Browne Jacobson’s social care team, warned that the last 18 months had seen a “significant increase” in the number of claimants coming forward.
Browne Jacobson has linked the rise to the Victoria Climbié and baby Peter cases, while Erwin-Jones said levels of litigation rose during a recession.
Increasing number of abuse claims
She added: “We’re getting an increasing number of cases where people say that the local authority should have known that they were being abused or neglected in the family home and should have taken steps to removed them from that environment at an earlier stage than they did.”
Under the Limitation Act 1980 claims for damages for personal injuries against a local authority as a result of negligence or a breach of duty must be brought within three years of the child reaching 18 or three years of the “date of knowledge” of the claim. However, the courts have the discretion to allow cases to continue in special circumstances.
Following a ruling by the Law Lords in 2008, cases of indecent assault can be considered as a breach of duty, giving the courts discretion over the time limit. Previously such cases were subject to a strict six-year time limit, without discretion, from the date of the assault or from the child reaching 18.
Erwin-Jones continued: “We’re now starting to see claims where people aren’t complaining about social work practice from five years ago, they’re complaining about practice from 10 to 15 years ago.”
Councils must improve record keeping
Brown Jacobson warned local authorities to improve their record keeping standards in order to successfully defend claims made against them.
Erwin-Jones said: “The new generation of social workers need to be prepared for the inevitable risk that they may be called upon to give evidence in future civil claims.”
She said proposals from the Social Work Task Force to establish a national social work college could help address this need.
Increased awareness of social services
Debbie Jones, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services resources and sustainability committee, said that the rise in legal proceedings may well be the result of increased awareness of the work of children’s social services due to the baby Peter and other high-profile recent cases.
She added: “The majority of these cases will be historical and will not necessarily reflect problems in the current system. However, as the Social Work Task Force has acknowledged, there is a need to improve record keeping and the systems that support that, the ability of social workers to explain their decisions in court, and a need to reduce vacancy rates in social work teams.
“All of these steps will contribute to keeping children safer now and help local authorities to justify the decisions and actions taken in any particular case, should these later be questioned by individuals concerned”