NSW government lawyers accused of 'wearing the plaintiffs down' over child abuse allegations

NSW Government lawyers have been accused of trying to "wear the plaintiffs down" in a case involving children who suffered horrendous abuse in a children's home called Bethcar.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is examining why it took six years to settle a compensation claim by 15 former residents of the Brewarrina home in the state's north-west.

Principal solicitor of Women's Legal Services NSW Janet Loughman told the inquiry it caused great stress for her clients to have to repeat their stories of sexual abuse on multiple occasions.

"Our experience was that the defendant, through its legal representative, was intent on taking all and every technical point throughout the protracted legal process," Ms Loughman said.

"Government lawyers seemed to be trying to wear the plaintiffs down so they would give up."

Leonie Knight, who was raped at the age of 13 by Burt Gordon and physically abused by his wife Edith Gordon, who were the home's operators, said she considered dropping out of the legal action.

"It was difficult re-telling my story over and over again especially with the counsellors," Ms Knight said.

"I prefer to talk about my story with people who have been through the same thing.

"The process took a very long time and it would be better it could have taken less time. There were times when I wanted to pull out [of legal proceedings]."

Lawyer accused of suggesting surveillance on victims

Ms Loughman said the final resolution of the case in favour of the former residents would not have happened without the long term commitment of volunteer and paid lawyers and the Bethcar survivors.

"I do not believe the litigation could have been sustained over such a long period of time, without the extraordinary commitment to the cause by the plaintiffs themselves," Ms Loughman said.

Evangelos Manollaras, the government solicitor in charge of the case, refused to believe the abuse had happened and would not agree to mediation.

That was after one of the perpetrators, Bethcar worker Colin Gibson, was sentenced to 30 years' jail for multiple sexual assaults at the home on two girls.

It was revealed yesterday that the state ended up paying more than $2 million for its own legal costs and those of the claimants.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, David Lloyd, said Mr Manollaras even suggested surveillance on some of the victims.

"Mr Manollaras, on 22nd June 2010, raised the possibility of undertaking some surveillance on at least some of the plaintiffs and suggested an initial budget of $20,000 to $30,000."

The supervising solicitor in charge of Mr Manollaras, Helen Allison, said she did not know what information the junior lawyer used to decide that abuse may not have happened.

Ms Allison said the state's defence should have been different, given the guilty verdict for Gibson.

"I think we should have admitted those assaults," she said.

The commission was told that one of the reasons the Bethcar case took so long to be decided was because of the need to overcome the time limitation rule on civil claims.

Paul Menzies QC, the lawyer representing the state, said that the New South Wales Government is now planning to change the way it responds to claims from victims of historic sexual abuse.

"The Government has made a decision to introduce flexibility into the model litigant policy to try to ensure that victims of sexual abuse do not suffer further as a result of that litigation process, and in particular flexibility in relation to limitation periods," Mr Menzies said.

A submission to the inquiry from Associate Professor Ben Mathews at the Queensland University of Technology argued that all Australian states and territories should remove such time limitations for injuries caused by child sexual abuse.

"In line with jurisdictions in Canada, legislative reform is required in all Australian states and territories to remove time limitations for civil claims for injuries caused by child sexual abuse," Professor Mathews said.

Crown not 'hypocritical'

Ms Allison had to defend her management of the handling of the case.

Mr Lloyd asked if it was "rankly hypocritical" of the state to make survivors prove again that they had been assaulted when one abuser had been jailed.

Ms Allison said she did not believe it was hypocritical.

"I don't believe it should have been done but I don't believe it was hypocritical," she said.

She described the civil case as "large, old and legally complex".

Amongst the crown’s legal tactics was an application to stay the claim, a request for all 15 cases to be put separately and a demand for detail such as domestic violence and criminal records.

It took five and half years before the state agreed to mediation.

Many of the survivors who gave evidence yesterday described how their lives after Bethcar included violence, drugs and alcohol and ongoing mental health problems.

Government lawyers even asked whether a girl had committed crimes when she ran away from Bethcar.

Ms Allison said the question should not have been asked but she did not believe that is was designed to cause embarrassment.

Government wants 'compassion and sensitivity to rule the day'

Attorney-General Brad Hazzard said current policies have not been interpreted to prevent more harm and hurt to victims.

"We don't want to see people in effect going through abuse again when they are simply trying to exercise their rights from horrible circumstances from years before," Mr Hazzard said.

He told the ABC he wanted the royal commission to know the Government "wants to make sure that compassion and sensitivity rules the day".

Mr Hazzard said it was early days, but "everything is on the table as long as people who have been subject to abuse as young people are not put through a legal process that adds harm or hurt".

Mr Manollaras and other barristers and lawyers involved in the state case have been called to give evidence.