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Sarah Swan

Sarah Swan

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Developments in abuse claims

AWARE12/12/2018
Keoghs Disease and Abuse Aware 2018

Whilst general damages in abuse claims can be assessed within the parameters of reasonable case law, special damages claims have steadily increased and have become more and more elaborate - even straying into areas of illegality. This was illustrated by a recent case, MG v Street & St Augustine of Canterbury RC High School [2018] (MG) in which the claim included the costs of addiction to illegal drugs.

MG was a pupil at the Canterbury RC High School (the school) in the mid-1980s. The school employed Thomas Street as a teacher. He indecently assaulted MG a number of times. In 2014 Mr Street pleaded guilty to five counts of indecently assaulting MG. The abuse (although serious) was “at the lesser end of the spectrum”.

From leaving school in 1993 the claimant went on to abuse alcohol and illegal drugs. He lived “a chaotic lifestyle”. He was unable to hold down a secure job or (despite obtaining O’Levels and A’Levels) complete a higher level of education. He had difficulties maintaining permanent accommodation and was homeless for some periods. MG’s medical evidence showed that at the end of 2012 and early in 2013 he underwent successful rehabilitation for alcohol and drug dependence.

In 2014, MG (who was by now in his early 40s) brought a civil claim against both the school and Mr Street. His claim was issued in 2016, when his claim for special damages included a loss of earnings amounting to over £500,000. His contention was that he would have been a teacher but had been unable to achieve this due to his illegal drug use as a result of the abuse. He contended that at no time before 2013 was he “functioning normally”. Rather than claiming a broadbrush figure (reflecting a loss of opportunity), as is usual in these types of claims, he submitted a specific calculation for past and future loss of earnings. The school admitted that it was vicariously liable for the abuse on MG by Mr Street.

However, it maintained a limitation defence, arguing that as over 25 years had elapsed since the abuse had occurred, it was prejudiced and could not investigate such a large loss of earnings claim (detailed records/witnesses were missing). Even though the school had admitted vicarious liability, the court, relying on RE v GE [2015] EWCA Civ 287 and Archbishop Michael George Bowen and the Scout Association v JL [2017] EWCA Civ 82, refused to exercise its Section 33 discretion and did not allow the claim to proceed.

The judge found that the court could not fairly try MG’s claim for the large loss of earnings due to the lack of evidence available. The case continued against Mr Street, who had not entered a limitation defence. Whilst the judge did not need to determine illegality/public policy considerations of the addiction claim, he went on to do so. 

This is the first time that this has happened in a historical abuse claim. He decided that MG’s claim for damages for loss of earnings would fail as the losses arose from MG’s “unreasonable and illegal decision to use drugs” rather than from psychological damage caused by the abuse by Mr Street, which was “relatively short-lived and not an effective cause of his drug addiction”. He dismissed the entire special damages claim and only awarded the claimant general damages, payable by Mr Street.

This case shows that, whilst this is a County Court decision, the courts continue to accept limitation as a valid defence in historical abuse claims. However, it does not go beyond existing authority i.e. Archbishop Bowen and the Scout Association v JL (mentioned above), F&S v TH [2016] EWHC 1605 (QB); and, more recently, Peter Murray v Fr Martin Devenish [2018] EWHC 1895 (QB).