Time ruling threatens actions over sex abuse

UP TO three-quarters of the complainants alleging sexual abuse by Frank Beck the former Leicestershire social worker may be disqualified from damages actions by a Law Lords' ruling.

About 86 hope to bring actions against Leicestershire County Council, which employed Beck - who was given to five life sentences for child sexual abuse in 1991 - and other staff from the county's children's homes. Damages and costs against the council could reach pounds 5m.

But a ruling in December could affect many of the actions. It was made by five Law Lords who decided that Lesley Stubbings, 36, of Wivenhoe, Essex, could not claim damages for alleged sexual abuse by her adoptive father between the age of 2 and 14, and alleged rape by her adoptive brother when she was 12, because she was outside the legal time limits.

The 1980 Limitation Act requires damages claims for personal injury, for rape and indecent assault to be brought within six years of the incident, or within six years of reaching 18.

The Law Lords' decision set a precedent for such actions, reversing earlier High Court and Court of Appeal rulings that Ms Stubbings' action was not time-barred. Some complainants in the Beck case fear they may be disqualified as a result.

Brian Dodds, the liaising solicitor for the complainants, said: 'The ruling in the Stubbings case may or may not apply to us. If it is found the six-year limit applies it would affect a very large chunk of our people. About 75 per cent are over 24. We are looking very closely at the ruling. If necessary we will go to the European courts, although it would add 2 to 10 years to the claims.'

Ms Stubbings' solicitor, Tony Fisher, may take her claim to the European Court of Human Rights. 'I believe the ruling in my client's case effectively means the victims in the Frank Beck case have been left without any remedy,' he said.

'In other parts of the world, such as Canada and several US states, they have changed the limitation laws to give a more flexible limit to cases involving sexual abuse. Their only hope for compensation is the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which in special cases allows sexual abuse claims to be pursued outside the limitation period.'

A board spokesman said there was a three-year limit for claims but it could be waived. 'The board's discretion is by and large sympathetic where no claim was made on the complainant's behalf at the time, or where they were subsequently unable to claim,' he added.

Browne Jacobson, the solicitors' firm acting for MMI insurers which provides cover for Leicestershire County Council, declined to comment.