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We Need To Stop The Clock On Abuse Time Limits

There should be no use-by date on justice.

12/05/2016 12:58 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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There have been hundreds of abuse survivors who, in their attempts to hold to account the institutions who failed them, have been thwarted by an insurmountable legal hurdle.

I commend the Palaszczuk Government for the steps it has taken to address the archaic time limits that currently prevent survivors of historic child abuse from accessing justice through the civil courts.

On Tuesday night, it indicated for the very first time, that it was open to changing the state time limitation laws for victims of child sexual abuse.

It's vital that these conversations continue, and that words are converted into action; action which ensures that no further abuse survivors are denied access to justice for crimes committed against them in their childhood.

I have represented hundreds of these courageous men and women, and have been fortunate enough to sit with them and hear their stories. I've listened to them describe their fear; of speaking out, of not being believed, of being ignored or blamed. This fear kept them silent.

They have learnt how to bury their words; a lesson that often led them towards a path of distrust, reinforced by troubled relationships, violence, and substance abuse. They have learnt to block out the memories, and it would be decades before they could finally bring themselves to release the words, and speak of the abuse they suffered.

The delay in a survivor coming forward is well recognised by experts, and has been the subject of much discussion and recommendation from the current Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse.

As they stand, however, civil laws in Queensland fail to reflect this; instead they currently work against the interests of survivors. Under the present laws, survivors of abuse are required to bring claims within three years of their assault, or by their 21st birthday if they were minors when the abuse occurred.

Imagine a 12-year-old boy who had been subjected to sustained, horrendous abuse at the hands of a paedophile teacher who was well-known for his depraved sexual misconduct with young boys. Like so many abuse survivors, it was many years before the boy was able to come forward and report what had happened to him. After the teacher's conviction, the boy -- now a man -- attempted to bring a civil claim against the school that had allowed the abuse to occur. Tragically, because of current time limitations, he no longer had the right to do so, and the school was able to dodge and deny its responsibilities.

While prevented from being heard in the civil court, his powerful message rang out loudly through the halls of Parliament House last night. He spoke with grace about the terrible toll his state's civil law time limit provisions has had on his life.

This damage has been widespread, and the stories shared at this week's forum were just the tip of the iceberg. There have been hundreds of abuse survivors who, in their attempts to hold to account the institutions who failed them, have been thwarted by an insurmountable legal hurdle.

Thankfully, we have seen steps in the right direction, with governments across Australia beginning to implement the Royal Commission's recommendations to abolish time limitations.

Victoria was the first state to enact change through the introduction of an act that removes time limits as a barrier for victims of childhood sexual abuse. New South Wales has followed suit with the vocal support of State Attorney General, Gabrielle Upton, who said that "there should be no use-by date for justice for survivors of child abuse". At a Federal level, it was encouraging to hear that the Hon George Brandis QC has just issued a direction to Commonwealth agencies not to use time limits as a defence in child abuse claims.

These changes will mean that hundreds of victims who suffered horrific abuse during their childhood while under the care of religious institutions and government entities may now commence proceedings through the civil courts. They can now do this without fear of time limitations being used as a weapon against them by defendants to prevent them from receiving just compensation.

Queensland needs to act urgently and come in line with the other states. We don't need further consultation, or discussion, or talk of the need to change. Now is the time to reform our laws, so that paedophiles and the institutions that protected them can no longer hide behind time defences to deprive survivors of justice. We owe them this.

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