Sex abuse by foster carers: local authorities legally liable

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The Supreme Court’s judgment on legal liability for sex abuse by foster carers has been welcomed by lawyers campaigning for victims of sexual abuse, writes Slee Blackwell’s Rachel Thain.

The decision of the Supreme Court in Armes v Nottingham Council establishes for the first time the principle that foster carers are to be treated as employees of the local authority which appoints them. This means that local authorities will become what lawyers refer to as ‘vicariously liable’ for the conduct of foster carers and therefore responsible for compensating any child who suffers sexual abuse whilst in foster care.

Foster carers are selected, trained, supervised and paid by local authorities, but until now they have never been treated in law as employees. This has enabled local authorities to distance themselves from sex abuse by foster carers, arguing that they are not legally liable.

The landmark judgment, which overturned previous judicial decisions, means that local authorities will now be held liable for sex abuse by foster carers, even if an authority was unaware that child abuse was taking place.

When a local authority removes children from their parents’ care and places them with foster carers, those children have the right to be safe and well cared for. The vast majority of foster carers perform a valuable service to society by providing vulnerable children with a nurturing and secure home environment. However, there is a very small minority of foster parents who abuse their position. When this has occurred it has raised difficult issues of law, as in order for the victim to recover compensation their lawyer would be required to establish that the local authority who placed the child in foster care had acted negligently in failing to be prevent the abuse. Even if negligence could be established the amount of compensation a victim would receive was likely to be limited as it was calculated from the first date that the local authority should have discovered that sex abuse by foster carers was taking place. That date was often significantly later than the date the sex abuse actually began.

The decision in Armes v Nottingham Council has changed this. By making the local authority vicariously liable for the acts of its foster carers it removes the need to prove that the authority has been negligent. Furthermore the victim will be entitled to receive compensation for all of the abuse they experienced.

The change in the law will allow children who have suffered sex abuse by foster carers to seek justice and recover compensation where they have previously been prevented from doing so.

For those who have suffered abuse at the hands of their foster carer, the breach of trust and emotional harm can be devastating.  By removing this legal barrier to seeking redress victims are now able to  force local authorities to take responsibility for what has occurred.

It is good news not only for the children currently in foster care, but also all of those who have suffered sex abuse by foster carers in the past.

If you have ever been the victim of sex abuse by foster carers, please contact Rachel for a free, confidential chat on Freephone 0808 139 1606 or email her at [email protected]