Civil claims over sex abuse were time-barred

LAW REPORT v 24 October 1996
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Stubbings and others v United Kingdom; European Court of Human Rights; 22 October 1996

In regulating access to its courts, a state could impose such limitations as were legitimate and proportionate, so long as they did not restrict the right of access to such an extent that the very essence of the right was impaired.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled by seven votes to two that, in applying the Limitation Act 1980 to dismiss claims by Leslie Stubbings and three other applicants for damages for sexual abuse by various adults during the applicants' childhood, there had been no violation of articles 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court also ruled, unanimously, that there had been no violation of article 8; and by eight votes to one that there had been no violation of article 14.

Article 6 provides: "In the determination of his civil rights and obligations . . . everyone is entitled to a . . . hearing [by a] tribunal". By article 8, "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life". By article 14, the enjoyment of Convention rights "shall be secured without discrimination on any ground".

Ms Stubbings, who was born in 1957, alleged that between the ages of two and 14 she was sexually abused by her adoptive father, Mr Webb, and his son Stephen, which caused her severe psychological problems. However, it was not until September 1984, following psychiatric treatment, that she realised for the first time there might be a connection between the childhood abuse and her mental health. In August 1987 she commenced proceedings against the Webbs, seeking damages for the alleged assaults.

The House of Lords held (see Stubbings v Webb [1993] AC 498) that as it involved intentionally inflicted injury rather than negligence, the claim was subject to the six-year limitation period under section 2 of the 1980 Act. This could not be disapplied by the court and began to run from the date of the plaintiff's 18th birthday. Ms Stubbings's claim was therefore out of time.

Similar claims by the other applicants, against their fathers or in once case their deputy headmaster at school, were discontinued following the ruling in Stubbings v Webb. The applicants argued that the ruling infringed their rights under articles 6, 8 and 14 of the Convention.

The Court ruled that there had been no infringement of article 6. In regulating access to a court, contracting states enjoyed a certain margin of appreciation, although the limitations applied should not restrict or reduce access to such an extent that the very essence of the right was impaired. Limitations had to pursue a legitimate aim and be reasonably proportionate.

In these cases, the very essence of the applicants' right of access to court had not been impaired, since they had six years from their 18th birthdays to initiate civil proceedings and since a criminal prosecution could have been brought at any time and a compensation order made.

The six-year time limit was not unduly short. It was proportionate to the aims sought to be achieved. It was not for the court to substitute its own view as to the appropriate policy in this regard.

Article 8 clearly applied to these complaints, which concerned a matter of "private life". Although its object was essentially to protect the individual against arbitrary interference by public authorities, it might also impose positive obligations involving the adoption by the state of measures designed to secure respect for private life even in the sphere of relations between individuals.

Sexual abuse was unquestionable an abhorrent type of wrongdoing. Children and other victims were entitled to state protection, in the form of effective deterrence, from such grave interference with their private lives. Such protection was, however, already afforded by the criminal law. Article 8 did not require states to secure respect for private life by the provision of unlimited civil remedies where criminal sanctions were in operation.

Finally, the court found that the difference in the 1980 Act between its treatment of victims such as the applicants, who had been subjected to deliberate injury, and those who were victims of negligence, did not amount to "discrimination" contrary to article 14.

Paul Magrath, Barrister