A potentially ground-breaking judgement has been made that should help social services departments defend themselves against past child abuse claims.
For the first time, a judge has barred a claim on the grounds that a fair trial could not be held because the case was brought so long after the events complained of.
In a case involving Wirral Council the claimant alleged abuse by her mother and step-father and that the local authority had failed to protect her from the abuse by failing to take her into care.
Kathy Perrin, lawyer for Wirral local authority, said the ruling was potentially of significant benefit to local authorities.
“Local authorities continually face claims from adults who allege that they were neglected or abused at home and that the authority ought to have taken them into care,” she said. “The alleged consequences are often serious psychiatric conditions caused by the abuse, with an impact on educational attainment and earnings potential – the claims can be high value.”
Perrin said in the past local authorities had had trouble mounting defences in such cases as witnesses such as social workers involved at the time were usually retired or deceased and records had often been lost.
“In the past, courts have been reluctant to accept the defence that it’s not possible to hold a fair trial so long after the alleged abuse. However, as a result of this most recent trial, local authorities now have an authoritative reference to assert this defence in other cases.”
Claimants abused as children have until their 21st birthday to bring a claim or until they are 23 if they can establish a later date of knowledge. After that the court has discretion to allow them to proceed provided the judge considers there can still be a fair trial.