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Big questions posed over abuse redress scheme

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Canberra law firm Maliganis Edwards Johnson (MEJ) has been flooded with inquiries from survivors of institutional child sex abuse since it announced a specialised service to help victims claim fair compensation for some of the most terrible psychological and physical injuries.

Last year’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has raised public awareness about the widespread nature of abuse—with tens of thousands of children found to have been assaulted and molested in church and state-run institutions since the 1960s.

In response to the “national tragedy”, the federal, state and territory governments have pooled $3 billion towards a National Redress Scheme which opened on 1 July.

Yet the scheme has been beset by problems, not least, administrative shortfalls and widespread condemnation at its capped $150,000 maximum payout for each victim.

MEJ Partner Deb Rolfe and institutional abuse specialist lawyer Hassan Ehsan said the number and nature of inquiries clearly suggested there were problems with the Commonwealth’s scheme.

“People are finding it difficult to use, for starters,” according to Hassan.

He pointed to shortfalls in the search engine which failed to keep historical track of institutions and name changes over the years.

“Sadly, victims of abuse may go to find their school, and when it doesn’t come up, may assume they can never apply…Many of these victims are part of a generation that lack computer literacy, so that adds to the confusion.”

But both Deb and Hassan said the greater equity issue came from payment limits.

“We are absolutely confident that in the vast majority of cases, we can achieve a higher settlement for victims by making a common law claim,” said Deb.

She also believed this was a better avenue on equity grounds, in that the institutions themselves would come under the legal spotlight.

“It is more just to force the institutions and churches themselves to make redress—rather than the taxpayer through a less generous scheme.”

If a victim settled within the redress scheme, they would not be eligible to take any further legal action.

“The problem is that when people are contacting the redress scheme, they are not being advised that if they go with the scheme they can’t make a common law claim. And the levels of damages that they can achieve through the scheme are much less,” Deb noted.

“We just want people to know that they are better served by getting free independent legal advice before they make the decision which way to go.”

Since July, the MEJ office had received a number of visits from victims trying to piece their lives back together after decades of disadvantage brought on by abuse in their childhood.

Hassan said that while it had been emotionally distressing to unpack some of the terrible traumas of the past, it also propelled him to work harder.

“This is not taking anything away from a motor accident vehicle claims or anything else, but we are talking with dealing with lower back pain or neck pain compared with the injuries caused to a 7 or 8-year-old who has been betrayed in the most terrible ways.

“Their lives are turned upside down and what happens to them as a child usually colours the rest of their life—leading in many cases to alcohol, drugs, prison—a loss of all of life’s chances.

Deb agreed that it was important to fight for people who had suffered their entire lives because of crimes committed to them as a child.

“This is so different to personal injury, where you have a good life up until the accident, and then you start to suffer. I mean, how to you quantify the suffering and loss of enjoyment of life of someone abused as a child?”

MEJ offered free advice to anyone wanting advice on how to progress a claim—whether through the courts or the redress scheme.

This free legal advice would not tie a victim to any further action.

Deb said that survivors needed support and compassion in moving forward—no matter how long ago the abuse took place.

“Because it’s like anything, I know that some people don’t trust lawyers. But some people don’t trust the Government as well.”

She noted a number of MEJ staff had undertaken Lifeline counselling training and were sensitive to the mental health impact of sexual abuse on victims.

“I’d say if anyone is confused or unsure, we can meet and discuss their particular circumstances and provide really expert advice on all of the options and choices available to them moving forward.”

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