With the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse coming to a close this week, it is timely to reflect on the inroads achieved in providing access to justice for survivors.
This includes arguably one of the royal commission’s most significant achievements: the lifting of statutes of limitations – a crucial legal reform that ensures survivors, irrespective of when they come forward, can pursue justice and hold institutions to account.
Thanks to the work of the inquiry, statutes of limitations for abuse survivors have been lifted or are being lifted in almost all Australian states and territories. South Australia unfortunately remains the exception to this.
It is impossible to overstate the significance that the removal of this barrier to justice holds for abuse survivors across Australia. The reality is that for decades, statutes of limitations were used by institutions to block meaningful redress.
As the royal commission repeatedly showed, it can often take survivors years before they can come forward to report abuse suffered. With statutes of limitations applying to abuse cases in states and territories, survivors quickly found that when they finally did take this step, they were almost always out of time to pursue a claim and to hold the institution responsible to account.
Countless survivors told the royal commission a similar story – that institutions freely took advantage of their limited legal rights, leaving survivors with few options but to accept paltry compensation and sign a deed of release for their silence, or to walk away.
With statues of limitations largely now lifted across Australia, survivors at long last have access to the law to seek genuine compensation through the courts, that importantly takes into consideration the extent of abuse suffered and the impacts of this.
This reform almost certainly would not have been actioned as comprehensively as it has across Australia to date without the inquiry’s scrutiny and recommendations.
The task it undertook has been extraordinary – over 41,000 calls were handled, over 2500 referrals were made to authorities, more than 8000 private sessions were held and more than 25,000 letters and emails were received.
The royal commission has given thousands of people the ability to tell their stories, in the comfort of knowing that, for many, they at long last would be heard and believed.
Crucially, the inquiry kept survivors front and centre as its inquiries progressed, with legal funding provided to support survivors giving evidence, as well as the use of multiple commissioners through both public and private hearings to ensure that as many people as possible could tell their stories to the commission directly.
Those efforts also led to a much-needed recommendation and subsequent commitment to deliver a national redress scheme for abuse survivors.
This is a welcome step, but disappointingly the scheme as proposed currently by the federal government falls short of what the commission recommended, including reduced caps on redress payments, a significantly shortened timeframe for survivors to decide if they will accept compensation through the scheme and a waiving of rights to bring a civil claim through the courts if survivors choose to access the redress scheme.
It also remains unclear if the states and territories intend to enter into any redress scheme – something that will be necessary to make it possible for institutions to participate.
Governments and institutions of all descriptions owe it to survivors to show that lessons have been learned from the royal commission and this must include the implementation of a national redress scheme that is consistent with the recommendations made.
In the same way that removing statutes of limitations has provided immeasurable access to justice for survivors, any redress scheme must also play its part in ensuring that the needs of survivors are put first.
All Australians will forever be indebted to the many tireless campaigners who fought for so long to achieve this royal commission, and the many significant reforms that have come from it.
We must not lose sight of the legacy that their efforts have helped to achieve – including doing all that we can to ensure that the scourge of abuse is never able to take hold in Australian institutions again.
Michelle James is a Principal and head of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers’ Abuse Law Practice.