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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

G.4: The civil justice system

53. The civil justice system aims to resolve disputes between individuals and organisations and provide remedies for injured parties, often in the form of compensation.

54. Victims and survivors have different reasons for bringing a claim, or a combination of aims and objectives. Some want their ‘day in court’ to explain what happened to them and hold those responsible to account.[1] Some want acknowledgement that they were sexually abused. One claimant told the Inquiry:

I was hoping that I’d get some recognition for what had happened to me, hoping that I would be vindicated for being called a liar all these years and that finally someone would listen to me”.[2]

Some want an apology from the relevant institution.[3] Although the courts cannot order defendants to make apologies, the civil claims process can facilitate them.[4]

55. Many claims do not result in compensation being paid. Victims face serious difficulties in bringing a claim, including limited access to specialist legal representation, the unavailability of funding, and the unavailability and diminished quality of the evidence.[5] Even when claims succeed (usually by accepting a settlement offer), many victims and survivors are dissatisfied with the outcome as they do not ordinarily obtain an explanation or apology for what had happened to them.[6] This likely reflects that the primary purpose of a civil claim is to obtain financial compensation, which does not always align with such objectives.[7]

Understanding the system

56. Victims and survivors may be unaware of the possibility of bringing a civil claim. The police, on whom victims and survivors often rely, have not consistently explained how compensation can be sought.[8] This has been due, at least in part, to concerns that criminal proceedings might be undermined by accusations that victims and survivors have fabricated allegations in order to obtain compensation.[9]

57. The Victims’ Code previously did not signpost the rights of victims and survivors to bring claims for compensation through the civil justice system.[10] In September 2019, the Inquiry recommended that the Ministry of Justice revise the Victims’ Code to make clear that victims and survivors must be advised by the police that they are entitled to seek civil compensation through the civil courts and should be signposted to specialist lawyers identified by the Ministry of Justice.[11] The government’s revised Victims’ Code (November 2020, which came into force in April 2021) makes clear that victims and survivors may be able to bring civil claims and signposts them to the Law Society, which the government considered was more appropriate.[12]

58. Bringing a civil claim is a major undertaking. The adversarial nature of litigation can be emotionally challenging and compound the trauma already experienced by victims and survivors. This can be exacerbated by the length of time it can take to resolve proceedings, although the Inquiry heard that the time taken to achieve settlements is now shorter than in previous years.[13] For some victims and survivors it is a last resort when other avenues of accountability and reparation have failed.[14]

Legal and procedural challenges

59. Claims concerning child sexual abuse are governed by civil law. Claims for personal injuries compensation are based upon assault and battery (also known as trespass to the person). This covers acts which, in criminal proceedings, would be sexual assault or rape. There are a number of ways in which civil claims for child sexual abuse may be brought against an institutional defendant, including:

  • negligence: where institutions failed in their duty of care to protect children from abuse, for example through inadequate supervision, policies and procedures; and
  • vicarious liability: institutions may be held liable for their employees or people in similar positions to employees, even where the institutions themselves are not at ‘fault’.

There may be factual scenarios which do not readily fall into either of these categories. For example, a local authority may place a child into a privately owned children’s home where the child is subsequently sexually abused but the local authority itself is not negligent nor responsible for those who committed the sexual abuse. Recent judgements have made clear that it will be difficult to bring a claim successfully where the local authority is considered to have discharged its duty to the child.[15]

60. Claimants must prove, on the balance of probabilities, that the sexual abuse took place. This may be difficult evidentially, particularly in cases of non-recent sexual abuse.[16] Even where a claimant can show that they have been sexually abused, they may still be left without a remedy if they cannot establish legal liability on the basis of negligence or vicarious liability, or their claim is time-barred (discussed further below). In order to quantify their claims, claimants are usually required to prove that they have suffered significant psychiatric injuries. This often involves assessment by two medical experts, one instructed by their own solicitors and one by the defendant’s solicitors. This can cause unnecessary distress to victims and survivors.[17]

61. Annexed to the Ministry of Justice Civil Procedure Rules, which govern the litigation process, are ‘pre-action protocols’, which aim to narrow the issues between parties and encourage early resolution of claims. The protocols explain the conduct and set out the steps the court would normally expect parties to take before commencing proceedings.[18] Child abuse claims are currently governed by the general Pre-action Protocol for Personal Injury Claims.[19] The Inquiry first heard about the potential for a new pre-action protocol in its Civil Justice Seminar in November 2016.[20] The Civil Justice Council is currently conducting a consultation exercise regarding pre-action protocols, including whether there should be a specific protocol for abuse claims.[21] Reasons for this include facilitating early resolution and apologies where appropriate, as well as greater transparency for abuse survivors.[22]

Identifying defendants and the role of insurers

62. Claims can be brought directly against an abuser, although an individual will not always have sufficient funds to pay damages. As a result, claims are usually brought against the institution in which the sexual abuse took place or against those responsible for that institution, for example a local authority or private body, although in some cases the institution may no longer exist.[23]

63. Public, private and charitable institutions usually have public liability insurance to meet any legal liabilities for injuries and losses suffered by members of the public. Some potential defendants, however, are uninsured and so may not have the resources to pay compensation or legal costs. It may therefore be difficult or futile to bring claims against them. Difficulties can also arise in the identification of the correct insurer for the relevant periods, especially in claims relating to non-recent sexual abuse. Victims and survivors’ claims may be unnecessarily prolonged or undermined where it is unclear whether the defendants have public liability insurance in place to pay for successful claims.[24]

64. The Inquiry’s Interim Report (dated April 2018) therefore recommended that the Association of British Insurers (ABI) consider whether a register of public liability insurers could be introduced to assist claimants in child sexual abuse cases in locating the insurers relevant to their claim and how it would operate.[25] This recommendation was followed by subsequent recommendations in September 2019 that the Department for Work & Pensions should work with the ABI to introduce a register and that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) should make the necessary regulatory changes to compel insurers that provide public liability insurance to retain and publish details of all current policies.[26]

65. In 2020, work on the feasibility of establishing a public liability register was carried out.[27] The ABI provided the Department for Work & Pensions, HM Treasury and the Ministry of Justice with a report prepared for the Inquiry on whether such a register could be introduced.[28] In March 2021, the Ministry of Justice stated that this work had been delayed due to its focus on the Inquiry’s other proposals, as well as due to the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.[29] In May 2022, it confirmed that work had been paused but that with “the easing of some of these pressures, we will engage the Association of British Insurers (ABI) on the feasibility and benefits of establishing a public liability register”.[30]

66. The ABI also had discussions with the FCA on the potential development of rules on the retention of public liability insurance records.[31] The FCA conducted a survey of public liability insurance providers and engaged with organisations “to better understand the issues faced by survivors in accessing insurance”.[32] It subsequently indicated to the Inquiry that the responses received by organisations had been limited and it was considering its next steps.[33]

67. Approaches to defending claims vary. Much turns on the attitude of the defendants and their relationships with their insurers (if there are any) and their solicitors.[34]

68. In recent years some insurance companies have developed guidance to assist their claims handlers in dealing with child sexual (and physical) abuse claims. For example, the Ecclesiastical Insurance Office (EIO), which insures organisations including the Anglican Church, has issued guiding principles which state that where liability is clear, early admissions are appropriate. The principles address other aspects of child sexual abuse claims, including encouraging less use of the limitation defence (the EIO is presently applying a moratorium on its use), consideration by policyholders of the appropriateness of an apology and also the provision of support or counselling.[35] Zurich Insurance plc, which insures a significant number of UK local authorities, has guidance for handling sexual (or physical) abuse claims. This includes restrictions on the use of the limitation defence and allows for apologies.[36]

69. In September 2019, the Inquiry recommended that the Local Government Association (LGA, the national membership body for local authorities) and the ABI produce codes of practice, recognising the long-term emotional and psychiatric or psychological effects of child sexual abuse on victims and survivors.[37] Those codes should include that: (i) claimants should be treated sensitively throughout the litigation process; (ii) the defence of limitation should only be used in exceptional circumstances; (iii) single experts jointly instructed by both parties should be considered for the assessment of the claimants’ psychiatric, psychological or physical injuries; and (iv) wherever possible claimants should be offered apologies, acknowledgement, redress and support.[38] In August 2021 the ABI published its code implementing this recommendation.[39] The LGA’s aim was to publish its code in November 2021, but it has indicated that final approval of the Code will be considered in June 2022 and then published.[40]

Resolving claims

70. Most civil claims do not proceed to court and are resolved between the parties for an agreed sum of money, known as a ‘settlement’. This avoids victims and survivors having to experience the stress and trauma of a contested trial. However, claimants may be left disappointed by the terms of their settlements, particularly where claims are settled without admissions of liability, acceptance of responsibility or apologies.[41] For some, this acknowledgement may be more important than financial compensation.[42]

71. Claims that do not settle proceed to trial, where victims and survivors may have to give evidence in court. Victims and survivors may be cross-examined on the parts of their evidence that the defendant does not accept. For some, bringing a claim allows them to have their ‘day in court’: the opportunity to explain in public what has happened to them and to have their sexual abuse recognised by a judge. This may be the case even though the experience of giving evidence at trial is profoundly stressful and, in some cases, re-traumatising. As noted in Victims and Survivors’ Voices, one claimant whose civil claim was rejected by the court on the grounds of it being out of time (the limitation period, see below) still felt “happy” because:

the judge himself turned around and said in court that he believed every word I said … it was a small win on my behalf because the judge himself believed me”.[43]

The trial process

72. The experience of giving evidence at trial is invariably difficult.[44] AR-A21 explained that giving evidence required him to re-open painful memories:

You’re sort of reliving that thing over and over again, and each time it became more painful to do so.”[45]

73. In April 2018, the Inquiry recommended that the Ministry of Justice provides primary legislation affording victims and survivors of child sexual abuse the same vulnerable witness protections in civil courts as they receive in criminal cases. It also recommended that the Civil Procedure Rules be amended to ensure that judges presiding over cases relating to child sexual abuse consider these protections.[46]

74. The Ministry of Justice asked the Civil Justice Council to consider this issue.[47] In February 2020, the Council published its report, Vulnerable Witnesses and Parties within Civil Proceedings.[48] It noted that a large majority of the assistance and protection provided to vulnerable parties or witnesses in the criminal and family jurisdictions could already be provided using existing powers within the Civil Procedure Rules.[49] However, it recognised that these powers were not being used frequently enough and it recommended a number of changes to rules, practices and training.[50] This resulted in an amendment to the Civil Procedure Rules’ ‘overriding objective’ in April 2021, which now states that dealing with a case justly and at proportionate cost includes, so far as is practicable, “ensuring that the parties are on an equal footing and can participate fully in proceedings, and that parties and witnesses can give their best evidence”.[51] The Civil Procedure Rules also now contain a practice direction on how the court should give effect to the overriding objective in respect of vulnerable parties or witnesses.[52]

75. The government has also decided to legislate for special measures in civil proceedings in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.[53] The Act enables the court to make a special measures direction in relation to a person who is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse; or is the victim, or alleged victim, of a “specified offence”.[54] A “specified offence” is to be set out in regulations to be made by the Lord Chancellor and will include sexual offences, including child sexual abuse offences.[55] It also prohibits cross-examination of a victim of child sexual abuse by a person who has been convicted of, or given a caution for, that offence.[56]

Assessment of damages

76. Financial compensation can include general damages for the pain, suffering and loss of amenity (that is, the impact the injury has had on the quality of life) and special damages for past and future financial losses, such as earnings and the costs of care and therapy.[57] Most claims are modest in value, although occasionally high awards are made by the courts or obtained through settlement. This usually happens where claimants have experienced substantial losses of earnings and have significant treatment needs. In 2019, the High Court awarded over £1 million to a victim who had been sexually abused by his teacher at a school in Haringey. This included future loss of earnings of £423,203.[58] At the time this was thought to have been the highest sum awarded to a victim and survivor in the UK and this level of compensation is not typical.[59]

77. Victims and survivors can be left dissatisfied with the amount of compensation, particularly damages paid through a settlement, because they do not feel their experiences have been sufficiently recognised.[60] The Inquiry also heard concerns that general damages in civil claims do not always adequately reflect the physical, emotional and psychiatric injuries that victims and survivors have experienced, together with the impact on their long-term quality of life.[61]

78. The Judicial College’s Guidelines for the Assessment of General Damages in Personal Injury Cases provides guidance on general damages, but at the time of the Inquiry’s Accountability and Reparations investigation hearings it did not have a freestanding section on the injuries caused by sexual abuse.[62] The Inquiry acknowledged that the quantification of awards of compensation for claims of child sexual abuse is a matter for the courts. However, it considered that the general damages that claimants receive must more fully reflect the physical, emotional and psychiatric injuries that they have suffered, together with the impact on their long-term quality of life.[63] In 2019, the Inquiry recommended that the Judicial College should revise its Guidelines for the Assessment of General Damages in Personal Injury Cases to include a specific section on the damages that may be appropriate in cases of child sexual abuse and set out a number of factors that the court should take into account.[64] The revised Guidelines were published in April 2022 and have introduced this freestanding category.[65]


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