Plea to end time limit on sex abuse lawsuits

Rolf Harris outside court last year, where he was jailed for sex attacks decades earlier. Photograph: Getty
Rolf Harris outside court last year, where he was jailed for sex attacks decades earlier. Photograph: Getty
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ADULTS who were abused in childhood could launch class actions for damages if a legal time bar is lifted, say lawyers.

In a submission to an ongoing Scottish Government consultation on the issue, the Law Society of Scotland’s civil justice committee said raising the three-year limit on litigation would open the way for group lawsuits more usually associated with the United States.

The government is currently seeking views on lifting the time bar, which is said to prevent victims taking legal action against those who abused them often years before.

The civil justice committee said it had been “polarised” by the consultation and unable to reach a consensus.

But Kim Leslie, the committee’s convener, said the view among solicitors representing pursuers was that the time bar should be lifted.

While there is currently no legal mechanism for class actions to take place in Scotland, a review of civil litigation by Sheriff Principal James Taylor, which was published in 2013, recommended that the procedure be introduced.

Leslie said: “We don’t have the structures at the moment for class actions. The government will be looking into whether to introduce the procedure that enables class actions to occur.

“It may be appropriate in some circumstances, but not all, for victims where there is a commonality of interest or one perpetrator or one organisation being pursued to come together and raise a class action.”

She added: “You can see with these types of cases where there is an organisation or a perpetrator being pursued by a number of individuals that the group action may be an option.”

Earlier this year, the Faculty of Advocates said it opposed moves to remove the time bar, arguing that the current system allowed the courts to waive the limitation on a case-by-case basis.

The issue is being consulted on alongside the national inquiry into the historical abuse of children in care, which began last month.

Law firm Slater and Gordon, which represents survivors of alleged abuse at the former Fort Augustus Abbey boarding school in the Highlands and Gordonstoun School in Moray as well as victims of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, is among those who have contributed to the ongoing consultation.

The firm’s Richard Scorer said: “We know that in these types of cases victims do generally take many, many years to summon up the psychological resources to disclose what’s happened to them.

“Often the more serious the abuse, the longer it takes people to talk about it. If you have an artificial time bar, what you are effectively doing is preventing victims from getting justice.

“The law has to consider the case fairly, but what is wrong about the law is having an artificial time limit.

“In reality, in Scotland that artificial time limit has prevented these cases from being heard.”

Asked about the possibility of survivors of alleged abuse scandals taking class actions, he said: “It’s certainly possible. If Fort Augustus was in England, we would be able to pursue claims.”