Under normal circumstances a formal advert appearing in the business section of the Times and the Mirror as ordered by the High Court, Chancery Division, for any creditors of the estate of James Savile wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.
Why then did it become front page news?
Because it invited any claimants who wished to claim compensation from Jimmy Savile’s estate, who had not yet come forward, to notify the solicitors acting on behalf of his estate of his/her wish to do so.
I received a call on Bank Holiday Monday from the BBC who wanted me to appear on Breakfast TV to talk about the story in the good company of Peter Saunders from NAPAC (National Association of People Abused in Childhood). As soon as I got the call, I anticipated that the question of alleged false allegations of abuse, and miscarriages of justice against alleged abusers, particularly celebrities may be raised.
I duly unearthed myself from peaceful sleep at 5.30am and set off for Salford Quays. The interview started off with my explanation of the principles of advertising for claims by creditors where the estate of a deceased needed to be distributed, which no doubt flew over the heads of most people.
It is quite normal, however, for the executors of an estate, in order to protect themselves, to advertise in the London Gazette for any person to come forward who is owed money by the estate. If, then, no one comes forward, the estate can safely be distributed.
It is not surprising that after William Roache, Dave Lee Travis, and Nigel Evans have been found not guilty of allegations of abuse from many years ago by different juries, that the media have now, inevitably, turned their attention to new angles of attack, with the focus, unfortunately, falling upon the alleged victims of abuse.
One also has to remember that insurance companies have waged a five-year campaign against personal injury claimants against a smoke screen of fraudulent whiplash claims, and crash for cash stories, men with clipboards trying to persuade members of the public to make claims, not to mention PPI phone calls. The unfortunate result is that the many thousands of genuine victims of injury, which is not their fault, are made to feel guilty and undeserving of what is rightfully theirs.
There is something about the British psyche that distrusts the accumulation of wealth by others, and resents the high salaries paid to captains of industry. In America, on the other hand, wealth is admired, and thought of as the just desert of hard work.
It is thus no surprise that in America, the victim of abuse can expect his damages to run to millions of dollars and in England mere thousands of pounds. American personal injury lawyers are often very wealthy because they are paid a percentage (commonly 30 to 40%) of the compensation they win. The conservative British judiciary for many years have looked askance at America and made determined efforts to ensure that their attitude to compensation does not spread across the Atlantic.
So how does this translate into the rights of victims of abuse in England?
Back to BBC Breakfast. After I had explained the legalities of the Jimmy Savile advert, the inevitable question arrived. ‘Do you think that advertising for claims could provoke false allegations, and chancers coming forward who have not been abused?’ It is a fair question, but one which is frequently used by the abuser in court, when he is charged with rape or some other sexual offence. After all, what defence can he put forward? ‘I didn’t do it’, is not very convincing, so ‘My accuser is only doing this for compensation and is greedy’ is his best line of attack.
Years of silence
In reply I explained that such a question sends out a very dangerous message to the many victims out there who have kept their abuse a guilty secret for many years, and have not yet come forward. Often they have tried to complain as a child and been dismissed as liars by those in authority. They thus remain silent for many years until the opportunity arises to make a disclosure. To send out the same message again through the media may provoke them angrily into coming forward, but is more likely to ensure that their silence is maintained.
I did go on to explain that there will be checks and balances in the Savile scheme, whereby the victim will have to be able to prove an association and opportunity for the abuse to have taken place either by way of live or documentary evidence. Also a medical report from an independent psychiatrist/psychologist which proves the harm suffered will be required.
Peter Saunders then reminded the public that of all the victims that he had helped over the years only a handful had mentioned compensation to him, which certainly confirms the attitude of all my clients. They often want justice, to be believed, and validated for what happened to them. The civil compensation process, however, is a journey which they should be allowed to undergo.
So how much compensation will they get? The Savile scheme sets an upper limit of £60,000, which is probably higher than the average. The highest award in the case of A v the Archbishop of Birmingham was around £500,000 but a lot of that was made up of loss of earnings. General damages for pain and suffering can be as low as £2000 and as high as £180,000, but the upper end is rare and requires repeated torture-like conditions.
Considering that abuse is a life long period of suffering English damages are far too low and equate to about £2.77 per day or the price of a nice cup of coffee – hardly adequate redress for the harm abuse causes.
Peter Garsden is the principal of QualitySolicitors Abney Garsden Solicitors (www.abneys.co.uk). The firm has one of the largest dedicated child abuse compensation departments in the country (www.abuselaw.co.uk)