NSW to give abuse survivors power to sue

Roje Adaimy
Churches and organisations will be open to being sued over child abuse, NSW's attorney-general says

Survivors of child sexual abuse will be able to sue churches and other institutions under sweeping changes to NSW's civil litigation laws.

Attorney-General Mark Speakman on Sunday said the state government will remove legal barriers that have stopped victims from seeking justice.

The overhaul follows recommendations from the royal commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse.

"These reforms will provide access to new avenues to allow survivors to pursue compensation so they can focus on recovering and moving forward with their lives," Mr Speakman said.

The changes include ensuring organisations are still liable if non-employees - volunteers or religious officers, for example - take advantage of their position to carry out abuse.

A new statutory duty of care will also be imposed on all institutions, meaning they will be liable for child abuse unless they can prove they took reasonable precautions to prevent it.

On top of that, the government will introduce legislation to remove the ability for institutions operating associated trusts to avoid liability for child abuse.

Courts will have the power to appoint trustees to be sued if those institutions fail to nominate an entity with assets and allow the assets of the trust to be used to satisfy the claim.

It effectively abolishes what's become known as the 'Ellis defence' - arising from a case in 2006 when former altar boy and abuse survivor John Ellis tried to sue the Catholic Church.

The church won the legal battle, successfully arguing it didn't legally exist as its assets were held in a trust that was protected from legal action.

Victoria passed laws to close the legal loophole in May. NSW hopes to introduce them in parliament before the end of 2018.

"It's staggering that these institutions in the past have been abject failures when it comes to reporting what has gone on," Mr Speakman told reporters.

"These reforms will make it easier for child sexual abuse survivors ... to take action against those who have failed them in the past."

Mr Ellis described it as a "red letter day" for survivors.

He hopes the reforms will help give those who have kept silent the confidence to come forward to ease their pain.

"It's going to be a long process - it's not an easy thing to do," he told reporters.

The Catholic Church in NSW said it has been helping survivors to identify proper defendants and ensuring claims are met "for some time now".

"However, the NSW Dioceses recognise more can be done to make access to the justice system easier," Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said in a statement.

"We support having a clear entity as a proper defendant for claims."