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Child abuse cases herald watershed moment for social workers

30 January 2012

Child abuse, in all its forms, is a heinous crime for which the perpetrators should rightly be brought to justice. Sadly, because those perpetrators are mostly men of straw, they do not have the means to compensate their victims financially, and that is when local authorities, charities, schools and employers get drawn in.

Child abuse cases have been notoriously bedevilled by arguments over liability not to mention compensation. Five years ago claimants proving prolonged and very serious sexual abuse over a number of years were recovering a maximum of £50,000 General Damages. More minor and isolated incidents might attract as little at £5,000.

However last month news emerged that four siblings were to receive nearly £1m from Essex Council in a negotiated settlement. The settlement reflects a change in the amount of damages that claimants are expecting in abuse cases.

For a number of years case law has also been slowly chipping away at the doctrine of vicarious liability which establishes that an employer is liable for the acts or omissions of its employees. The law is widening so vicarious liability may attach even when the abuser is not an employee.

Judgment is awaited on a claim against the Childrens Society in which a man who is in his 60s claims that, as a teenager, he was abused by the son of the warden and the matron at a Childrens Society Home.

His lawyers have argued that despite the fact that the son was not an employee of The Childrens Society, the charity is liable for the abuse because it took place while he was in charge. If this argument is successful the categories of people for whom defendants such as schools, charities and fostering agencies might be vicariously liable could be enormous.

Only last year a judge ruled four siblings were to receive damages after Buckinghamshire County Council social workers failed to protect them from very serious sexual abuse by their father. What is significant about this case is the fact that this judge was prepared to find that a duty of care was owed to a child who had not even been conceived.

Next year marks the tenth anniversary of Lord Lamings report following the tragic death of Victoria Climbie. A lot has improved since then and we all agree that much more needs to be done. Sadly the tragic cases of Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter have also made the prospect of suing social services departments much more palatable in the eyes of victims and the general public.

The levels of damages in abuse cases have slowly crept up as more cases are brought before the courts. Not surprisingly we are seeing a corresponding increase in the amount of costs their solicitors are also now expecting. Costs often match or overtake damages.

For many we have reached a watershed moment. As lawyers play the blame game in pursuit of sky high damages, social care services up and down the country are left creaking at the seams.

Only last month research by Action for Children showed that half of social workers feel powerless to stop children being neglected due in part to inadequate resources. This has been borne out by Cardiff City Council who have reported more than one-third increase in referrals whilst Kent County Council have said that its social workers manage caseloads of more than 40, and sometimes up to 60 or 70 cases.

The current situation is simply not sustainable. The strains on the public purse will see to that if the courts havent already.

This article was first published in The Times

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