Lawyer wants end to red tape over child abuse compensation: QC says 300 may be pursuing claims against local authorities

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A LEADING children's lawyer has joined calls for an end to legal red tape which stops some victims of abuse in council homes being able to claim for compensation.

Allan Levy QC, co-author of the watershed 'pin-down' report on abuse in Staffordshire homes, also wants social workers, like doctors and nurses, to be made personally liable for abuse and mistakes.

The Independent disclosed yesterday that more than 70 children and young adults all over Britain are suing local authorities for alleged physical and sexual abuse while in care. Solicitors say this resort to legal remedy is a new phenomenon triggered by widespread publicity of a number of abuse cases in homes. The volume of actions, which Mr Levy estimates at closer to 300, represents a searing indictment of the state of institutional child care in Britain.

Many victims are, however, unable to claim compensation because of a rule that prohibits claims that are more than three years old. Others have no right to claim if they are seeking compensation for negligence by a local authority rather than assault or false imprisonment.

Joan Lestor, Labour's spokeswoman on children and the family, said yesterday that she would be pressing for changes when Parliament resumed in the autumn. She also called for an improvement in vetting procedures for those who work in children's homes and for better inspection. 'These are very poor,' she said.

Mr Levy - whose 'pin-down' report revealed that care workers in Staffordshire homes were locking some children in solitary confinement for weeks at a time - estimated yesterday that the number of cases against local authorities was in the region of 200 to 300. 'But the law is in a disgraceful state,' he said. Victims of abuse in homes who want to sue for compensation on the grounds of negligence do not have the right to do so. The Court of Appeal has ruled that local authorities are not liable. The House of Lords is to reconsider that decision later this year. 'I think it is quite wrong and the House of Lords should say that. Doctors and nurses are liable, and social workers should not have immunity.'

Even if they pursue local authorities on other grounds, like assault, they only qualify for a hearing if they come to court within three years of the incident. 'Often it is 10 or 15 years before people realise what has happened,' Mr Levy said. 'This is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs.' 'Eternal vigilance is required in our children's homes.' One parent, whose 20-year-old son is proposing to take legal action against Cheshire County Council for sending him to a special school in Hereford where he was beaten and brutalised, said: 'These are the people you trust, feeling this is the right thing to do. But then you send a damaged child away and they damage them further.' The owner of the Berrow Wood school, Alan Gorton, and five others were convicted of physical abuse last month in Gloucester. Mr Gorton, who pleaded not guilty, was sentenced to 12 months in prison.