Lawyers acting for them say the actions are unprecedented and an indictment of institutional childcare in the past two decades. Simon Richardson, a solicitor in Derby and an expert in this untested legal field, said: 'The stories are incredible and it is not just something in the past but the abuse appears to continue. This is by trained people and people who should know better.'
He is representing 60 individuals, from Durham to Essex, seeking compensation for abuse while in children's homes. 'This is a new area and there will be some precedents set. In the last six months it has ballooned. I can safely say there are hundreds of cases outstanding and it may even run into thousands. Nobody has yet produced a national figure.'
The Independent has learnt of 10 other cases that have started in the past few months. They include proceedings against the London borough of Southwark following the alleged assault of a boy in a home for mentally handicapped children, and against Cheshire County Council for sending children with behavioural difficulties to a privately owned school in Hereford where they were physically abused. Six members of staff were jailed last week.
Many people realised they had the right to seek damages from local authorities only after the publication in May 1991 of the 'pin- down' report which showed that children in Staffordshire were being held in solitary confinement, and the prosecution and imprisonment of Frank Beck for sexual abuse in Leicestershire homes later that year.
'These cases made people aware that there was abuse in homes,' Mr Richardson said. 'They went to the police to report similar problems and police told them to go to solicitors. And they came in a flood.'
Some councils are defending the actions by claiming that they are not responsible if more than three years have elapsed since the incident. Whether the actions are in fact time-barred remains uncertain, but solicitors are urging the Government to review the limitation provisions.
Councils are concerned by the new actions because insurers are reluctant to underwrite potential court awards for child abuse.
Among the first of the actions to be heard will be three cases against Hereford and Worcester County Council for compensation following alleged sexual abuse of children in a local home. Earlier this month the council itself filed proceedings against its own insurers, Municipal Mutual Insurance, who have denied that the policy covers any liability for damages should the children win.
The scale of the proceedings for abuse emerged after an article in the Independent, which disclosed a compensation action by a former prostitute in Camden, north London, for abuse while in a local authority home, prompted others who were involved in proceedings to step forward.
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