Queensland must ensure nobody is excluded from the Federal Government’s redress scheme for survivors of institutional child abuse, a prominent Brisbane compensation lawyer is urging.
Mark O’Connor says Queenslanders would applaud the state’s committing to join the Commonwealth Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse this week, which stemmed from a Royal Commission.
Mark, who is an Accredited Specialist in compensation law and a Director with our firm says Queensland survivors of institutional child abuse deserve to have access to justice and compensation.
Around 10,000 Queenslanders are expected to be eligible - 5,000 abused in government institutions and another 5,000 in non-government institutions.
However, Mark has deep concerns that a proposal for the redress legislation could mean some potential claimants could be disqualified because of prior criminal history, even though the criminal history might have been caused or contributed to by their childhood sexual abuse.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, in announcing Queensland’s joining the scheme, made no reference to controversies elsewhere over moves to exclude people with convictions for certain crimes from the redress scheme.
Mark says he has deep concerns that the scheme could exclude – for the wrong reasons- sex offenders and anyone convicted of a crime with a sentence of five years or more, including homicide, drug or fraud offences.
“This is grossly unfair and ignores the fact that in very many cases the people it excludes were themselves the victims of abuse as children, which has derailed their own lives.
“It’s wrong and unjust to simply exclude people because of what they have done and ignored the very real likelihood that their spiral downwards is due to themselves being abused as children.”
He says the exclusion move has polarised the community and drawn special comment from the Senate’s Community Affairs Legislation Committee which has produced a 150-page report on the redress scheme.
He applauds the committee’s recommendation that Federal. State and Territory governments should “consider the value of the Redress Scheme as a tool for the rehabilitation of offenders, and that excluding criminal offenders can have the unintended consequence of institutions responsible for child sexual abuse not being held liable”.
Mark says there is no final decision yet on any exclusion in the redress legislation and Queensland should insist there be none.
“The committee has raised very valid concerns about institutions responsible for abuse escaping justice if their victims are denied redress. Also there is a major fear any such action could be discriminatory toward Aboriginal people, who feature disproportionately in the prison system, and for whom many have a background of being abused as children.
He hopes the Federal Government will take on board the many concerns raised about exclusions and says the redress scheme should not be reserved just for people who meet a set of ‘middle class norms’.
“Real life is much more complex. We deal with many people who have ended up in jail for things they are ashamed of, but when you delve deeper it usually starts with some terrible abuse they suffered as children.
“This derails their lives and often sets them on a path to drugs and crime and inevitably prison.
“But if the Federal redress scheme goes ahead in its current form, they would be denied compensation for their own suffering. That’s unfair,” he says.
Mark says he has spoken to around 15 people who have been raped by prison guards in their youth, which set them on a destructive path of drugs and more prison.
Sums of up to $150,000 will be offered under the scheme but claimants will not be able to pursue other legal actions if they accept it.
The states, churches and other institutions will face pressure to opt into the scheme amid reported concerns they will struggle to fund some payments.
The initial legislation will create a Commonwealth system and the states are required to opt-in, passing their own laws, to ensure it has a broad national reach.
“We hear stories every day of horrendous abuse suffered by people in institutions such as schools, churches, orphanages and the like. As a result of the abuse, it’s common for these victims to themselves go off the rails into a life of crime, drugs and abusive behaviour.
“My feeling is it’s not for us to arbitrarily judge who should or should not be entitled to be compensated for their ordeals as children. The process should be open and fair at all times,” Mark says.
He urges the Queensland Government to insist everyone who suffered childhood abuse should qualify under the redress plan.
“We are not talking about rewarding people for their crimes but we should acknowledge they may have just as valid a claim as other child sex abuse victims,”.
Link to the Senate Committee's final report in the Commonwealth Redress Scheme: