Child abuse case against primary school teacher succeeds
I have recently been successful in a child abuse case against South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council for assaults carried out by a teacher at St James’ Roman Catholic Primary School based in Hebburn.
Background – the abuse
My client (who shall be known as “Anna” for the purposes of this article) was sexually abused by Mr Eamon O’Neill who was a teacher at the school. The abuse took place between about 1985 and 1990 when Anna was between about 10 and 15 years old.
My client finally felt able to report the abuse when she was in her early 20’s to her partner. The police were informed of the abuse and they prosecuted O’Neill for sexual offences relating to my client. O’Neill pleaded not guilty throughout the criminal case and only changed his plea just before the start of his criminal trial. This resulted in my client having to mentally prepare to give evidence in court and to then lose her chance to finally confront O’Neill at the last moment. My client felt this was an attempt by O’Neill to continue to manipulate and control the situation but at the same time she felt relief that he had finally admitted the abuse.
Our involvement – pursing a compensation claim
Although you can report a crime at any time to the police, you generally have to bring a civil compensation claim within 3 years of the assault or by your 21st birthday, whichever is later. Anna was nearly 40 years old when she came to Bolt Burdon Kemp to make a compensation claim and therefore substantially out of time to bring a claim. The courts can look behind the time limit however in exceptional circumstances.
I faced substantial hurdles to prove that a fair trial was still possible and that O’Neill’s case and/or the school’s case had not been harmed due to the delay in bringing a claim. It was my intention to rely on O’Neill’s prosecution to show that the abuse had taken place and to therefore allow Anna’s claim to proceed out of time.
I was concerned in pursuing O’Neill directly for compensation as there was a real risk he would not have enough money or assets to pay compensation to Anna, especially as other victims may have already made successful claims against him. I therefore instructed a detective to check whether or not O’Neill had enough monies or assets such as his own house to pay compensation to my client. Unfortunately the detective was only able to confirm O’Neill had moved to Ireland and he was unable to trace his finances.
As a result, I decided to pursue O’Neill’s employer. It was clear to me that O’Neill had used his position as a teacher to obtain access to Anna before manipulating her and then sexually abusing her. As a result, I felt the school were equally responsible for the abuse as they had failed to supervise O’Neill even though he was allowed daily interaction with young children.
Unfortunately, the school denied being responsible for O’Neill’s actions and they alleged the abuse all took place outside the course of his employment as Anna’s teacher. I was not deterred by this however and decided to issue court proceedings against them. Anna wanted to ensure her identity was kept confidential and I therefore applied to the court to anonymise her identity. Our application was successful and Anna was therefore known by three non-descript letters (such as “ABC”) and her address was noted as my Firm’s address for the entirety of her claim.
Bearing in mind the strong defence put forward by the school, I was surprised when the school backed down and decided to put forward an offer to settle my client’s claim and to pay her legal costs. Despite putting forward an offer, the school refused to expressly admit they were responsible for O’Neill’s actions and they refused to apologise for his actions. This sadly is an issue that we often face.
My client decided to accept the school’s reasonable offer. The conclusion of this case was a significant result for Anna as she felt she had obtained a sense of justice as the school’s settlement offer signalled they admitted that she had been harmed as a result of their failures and it has finally enabled her to move on with her life.