THE way in which the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group deal with claims related to physical and sexual abuse has been praised this week at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).
The president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, Peter Garsden, told the IICSA chair, Professor Alexis Jay, that Ecclesiastical “deserve a lot of credit” for their published guiding principles, which, he said, “could develop [into] a national model litigation policy”.
Mr Garsden made his comments at a seminar looking at the Civil Justice System as part of IICSA’s accountability-and-reparations investigation. The seminar, held in central London on Tuesday, was an informal round-table discussion among specialist lawyers and insurers, led by Professor Jay and the IICSA panel.
Ecclesiastical insures most Church of England churches. Its UK claims director, David Bonehill, told the seminar that Ecclesiastical would never plead “consent” as a defence in cases involving children under the age of 16. “We have made that very clear in our guiding principles,” he said. “That is an ethical stance, and I think it is absolutely the right thing to be doing.”
He said that Ecclesiastical’s policy wording allowed the group to take “full conduct of any claims” — including the right to decide whether to settle any claim brought. He said that the responsibility for how claims were handled “sits well and truly with me and my team in our organisation, not with our policyholders. That sometimes is misunderstood, I think. . .
”Yes, we collaborate . . . with our policyholders, but the decision sits with us. We are not influenced by what others may say.” He said that the company and policyholders were “on a journey together” as claims wre investigated; “so there shouldn’t be any surprises when it comes to the final decisions on liability.”
The company’s guidelines were drawn up in consultation with victims of clerical abuse, among them Professor Julie Macfarlane, who wrote in this newspaper exactly a year ago about her battle with lawyers representing the diocese in question’s insurers (Comment, 11 December 2015; 15 July 2016 and 15 July 2016).
Cases often require the evidence of consultant psychiatrists as expert witnesses. Mr Bonehill criticised claimant solicitors who refused to appoint joint experts. He said that Ecclesiastical always proposed the use of a joint expert, but, he said, “with one or two exceptions, it is always declined.” He called for a “step change” to prevent victims’ having to go through their experiences with two psychiatrists: “If we allow the current status to remain, there’s only one person that suffers in all of this.”
IICSA’s two-day seminar was due to continue on Wednesday.
Last week, Professor Jay defended the Inquiry from criticism by the Home Affairs Select Committee. “Nobody is more determined to deliver a successful Inquiry on behalf of victims, survivors, and the wider public than the Panel and myself,” she said. “We recognise that the past few months have been difficult for the Inquiry and for the victims and survivors who have placed their trust in it. I am personally sorry for any unnecessary anxiety the Inquiry may have caused to victims, and survivors during this transitional period.”
She is appointing “an external legal figure” to examine some of the criticisms made by the Select Committee.