Court Win for Historic Sexual Abuse Victims

12th April 2024
Category Compensation

Victims of historical sexual abuse have had a victory in the High Court of Australia. The RMB Compensation Law Division explains.

On 1 November 2023 the judicial system took a step towards correcting the faults of the past and supporting victims of historical abuse, when the High Court handed down its judgement in the matter of GLJ v The Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Lismore [2023] HCA 32.

In this matter, the Plaintiff, GLJ commenced formal court proceedings against the Diocese claiming compensation for the injuries she sustained as a result of being sexually abused by a priest of the Diocese.

The alleged sexual abuse occurred in 1968, when the Plaintiff was 14. The offending priest died in 1996 and proceedings commenced in the NSW Supreme Court in 2020. As the offending priest had already died when the Plaintiff reported her historical abuse and commenced court proceedings, the Diocese sought a permanent stay of the matter.

The Diocese alleged it would not receive a fair trial and could not properly defend the case, as it could not get direct evidence from the deceased priest or other deceased senior members of the church who would have been material witnesses.

The NSW Court of Appeal ordered a permanent stay, meaning the proceedings against the Diocese were permanently paused, denying GLJ the right to continue to claim compensation and redress for her injuries. 

Until this decision, the threat of a permanent stay was a useful tool for Defendants in historical abuse proceedings, to pressure the Plaintiff into an early unfair settlement or deter victims from claiming compensation completely.

The High Court of Australia however did not agree with the Court of Appeal and overturned the permanent stay. The High Court, by a 3:2 majority confirmed the death of an alleged offender does not automatically result in a stay being ordered. In this specific case, the Diocese was on notice during the life of the offending priest, of other allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. Due to this prior notice, the Diocese was equipped with information, knowledge and evidence which could assist in the present proceedings and therefore the allegation that the trial would not be affair one was not supported.

It is hoped this decision will encourage and empower victims of historical abuse to pursue their entitlement to damages and call out the establishments that hid or protected offenders in the past.

If you have experienced secual abuse at any stage of your life, your first step should be to contact our office to arrange a free consultation. You can contact us by by phone or our 'Ask a Question' tool on our website.