Limitation Amendment (Child Abuse) Bill 2016

I speak in support of the Limitation Amendment (Child Abuse) Bill 2016, which endeavours to deliver essential and overdue reform for victims of what would have to be the most heinous of crimes—child abuse. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to the right of the child to grow in an environment safe and free of abuse.

In fact, article 19 states:

  1. 1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.
  2. 2. Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.

This reform has been delayed by this Government. In November 2015 a very similar private member's bill was brought before the House by the member for Liverpool, the shadow Attorney General. I firmly believe that if the Government were genuine in its wish to support the victims of child abuse, it would not have voted down this private member's bill by 39 votes to 36. Instead, Government members would have worked with the Opposition in a spirit of bipartisanship and amended the bill brought to this place by the Labor Opposition.

The bill responds to recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was brought down in September 2015, about removing limitation periods that apply to claims for damages resulting from child sexual abuse. This is one of the changes that once made will immediately help those victims and survivors of past child sexual abuse. I note that the bill is also informed by community consultation through a discussion paper released last year on limitation period reform options to which 48 submissions were received from a broad range of stakeholders.

The object of this bill remains predominantly the same as the one introduced by Labor in the private member's bill. It is to amend the Limitation Act 1969 to provide that there is to be no limitation period for an action for damages that relates to death or personal injury resulting from child abuse. The amendments define "child abuse" to mean abuse perpetrated against a person when the person is under 18 years of age that is sexual abuse, serious physical abuse or the other abuse perpetrated in connection with sexual abuse or serious physical abuse.

At the moment common law claims for damages must be commenced within a specified time. This is sensible for many claims—for example, a motor vehicle accident. But a time limit is entirely inappropriate in child abuse cases. It is now widely recognised that victims in such cases may take lengthy periods to disclose the abuse. The average time for disclosure of child sexual abuse is approximately 23 years. Therefore, the three-year time limit for civil claims for compensation is a serious and inevitable obstacle to justice. Victims and survivors of abuse have enough challenges in their way. The law and especially our limitations law should not add to the burdens they already have.

Currently, to make a civil claim out of time—that is, beyond the three years after which a child victim of abuse has turned 18—a survivor must seek the leave of the court to allow his or her claim to be brought out of time. The statute of limitations acts as ammunition for the defendants to use to beat down victims and survivors in order to reduce the amount of compensation they have to pay.

The statute, in its current form, is standing between victims and their access to justice. This Parliament has an obligation to deliver practical assistance and real legal remedies so that victims and survivors of sexual abuse, whenever that occurred, have it within their power to gain access to justice. I became friends with Dave Owen, a witness at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and a neighbour of mine who is now in his late seventies. Dave was born after his 12-year-old mother was raped. He was offered for adoption in a newspaper advertisement. He was physically, sexually and emotionally assaulted for years at an orphanage run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy. Dave was interviewed by Joanne McCarthy, an award winning journalist with the Newcastle Herald.

Ms McCarthy was the journalist responsible for the announcement by Julia Gillard of the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Dave refers to the "stain on your brain" of being abused almost from the day that one is born. Dave told Joanne McCarthy, "The reason why people did not believe me when we told them years ago was because it was so outrageous and so inhuman what was done to us. All I can do is tell how it happened." Dave never had a sexual relationship with a woman and he never married because he was worried he would take out the cruelty that was done to him on his wife. Dave said, "The rethinking of it, you have got to relive it. You feel the floggings, you feel the fear and the pain, you go back to that time because it is always there." I am more than happy to support this bill for the survivors of child abuse such as Dave.