How UK Sexual Abuse Law Applies to Compensation Claims

In England and Wales, lawyers use civil sexual abuse law to process compensation claims. Depending on the circumstances, claimants and defendants rely on:

  • tort law (a civil wrong), which enables claims for
    • trespass to the person (e.g. for false imprisonment, physical assault & battery),
    • negligence (e.g. for failure to safeguard)
    • misfeasance in public office (particularly relevant to police officer abuse cases)
  • other areas of law including
    • employment law
    • contract law
  • various statutes (e.g. the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, Human Rights Act 1998, Data Protection Act 2018, Equality Act 2010 etc.).

In practice, lawyers frequently base claims in personal injury law procedures and principles because sexual abuse compensation claims include an element of physical and/or psychological injury.

On this page you will see that we use some technical words when explaining how sexual abuse law applies to civil claims. Go to our Sexual Abuse Definition and Other Legal Terms page to learn more about them.

How Can the UK Civil Law Help Me Get Justice in My Sexual Abuse Case?

Abuse survivors want justice. Justice means different things depending on the circumstances. It can include most, or all, of the following:

  1. compensation

In civil law, courts make financial compensation awards to help victims with the pain and abuse they have suffered. In many cases, this money can help victims start to rebuild their lives. It is not a “win”, “jackpot”, or any of the other derogatory terms you may see in the media. Compensation is carefully calculated (read how on our page about sexual abuse compensation calculators and other remedies to find out how).

Simply put, awards are intended to put the sexual and physical abuse victim in the pre-abuse position.

Where appropriate, this can include money to put right financial abuses as well as physical and emotional ones.

But achieving justice is about more than just money. With our help you may also get:

  1. a full investigation to find out what happened to you
  2. physical and psychological assessment and therapy
  3. acknowledgement of wrongdoing and apology
  4. resolution, recognition of your pain and suffering, and healing.
Photo of Kevin Donoghue, a solicitor and sexual abuse law expert.

Speak to Kevin Donoghue and his team of sexual abuse law experts about your claim.

The Role of the Civil Procedure Rules in Sexual Abuse Claims

The courts in England and Wales expect solicitors to follow the Civil Procedure Rules when handling sexual abuse compensation claims. These rules set out pre-action protocols for initially bringing and, where appropriate, defending claims. If proceedings are required, the Civil Procedure Rules set out the steps required to take a case to trial for a judge to rule on sexual abuse allegations and claims. You can read the Civil Procedure Rules here.

Trespass to the Person Claims

Trespass to the person is the umbrella legal term which covers the most common sexual abuse and physical assault claims.

Depending on the circumstances, sexual abuse and physical assault victims may claim compensation for:

  • False imprisonment
  • Assault and battery
  • Threats of violence used to coerce the victim into sexual abuse
  • Etc.

These claims are based in tort law and must be proven by the claimant unless the burden of proof is shifted to the defendant. (That happens in false imprisonment cases, which you can read more about by clicking on the link.)

Where appropriate, the claimant must satisfy the court that the defendant was responsible on “the balance of probabilities”. This means that the claimant must show that it was more probable than not that

  1. the act or omission occurred, and
  2. the defendant was responsible for it, and
  3. the claimant suffered the resulting loss claimed.

Negligence and Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse compensation claims based in the tort of negligence can be raised against defendants such as employers, the police, other organisations, and others.

To prove negligence, claimants in sexual abuse and physical assault cases must show that the defendant:

  1. owed them a duty of care
  2. failed in that duty
  3. the claimant suffered a loss as a result
  4. the loss was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s negligent conduct.

All elements must be present to prove liability in tort law for negligence. This is not easy, especially in sexual abuse cases against organisations, local authorities, and employers. Even when claimants show that they are owed a duty of care, their claims are often hard to prove because there must be a causal link between the breach of duty and the loss. (See Bradford-Smart v West Sussex County Council [2002].)

Misfeasance in Public Office Sexual Abuse Claims

Misfeasance in public office claims can arise when a public office holder misuses or abuses their power.

Sexual abuse victims can bring claims for this civil wrong relying on judge-made case law as detailed in the Three Rivers DC v Bank of England [2006] case. The judge in that case outlined the test that the claimant must satisfy. For sexual abuse and physical assault cases, it would work like this:

  1. the person alleged to have committed the sexual abuse must have been a public officer at the time of the incident(s). (Public officers include police officers.)
  2. that the person’s misfeasance (misconduct) was an exercise of his or her power in their capacity as a public officer
  3. the person intended to injure the claimant by the exercise of their power, or knowingly/ recklessly acted in excess of that power
  4. as a consequence, they caused the claimant to suffer damage/ loss
  5. the public officer knew (or anticipated) that their act (or acts) would probably cause damage of the kind actually caused.

Proving Bad Faith in Misfeasance in Public Office Claims

As well as the above, claimants must prove that the public officer acted in bad faith to meet the “Three Rivers test”. A mistake is not enough. Public officers act in bad faith when:

  1. they deliberately exercise their powers to injure the claimant, and
  2. when they exceed their powers in the knowledge that they are doing so or recognise that they might be doing so but proceed anyway. In this situation the officer also knows that the result of their actions will probably injure the claimant, or recognises the risk that their actions will probably do so, but goes ahead regardless.

Employment and Contract Law Claims for Sexual Abuse Compensation

Sexual abuse and physical assault claims can form part of employment and/or contract law claims.

Claims in employment and contract law differ depending on if the sexual abuse victim and their abuser work for the same employer, and the role of the employer.

Employment contracts and policy handbooks frequently include reference to:

  • physical assaults (which can include sexual assaults) and
  • harassment (including unwanted sexual attention)
  • discrimination
  • victimisation

as grounds for dismissal for gross misconduct.

And, depending on the circumstances, claimants may be able to argue that supervisor of alleged abusers failed to act, leading to negligence and other claims.

These claims are based in contract law because those involved may have employment contracts (even if not written down). A close review of employment contracts, policy handbooks, and any other policies, guides, emails, letters etc. is essential.

(N.B. Donoghue Solicitors does not advise on employment law, but we can put you in touch with a specialist lawyer if required.)

Statute Law-based Claims for Sexual Abuse

Statute (Parliament-made) law can be used to help sexual abuse victims claim compensation. Where appropriate, claimants rely on statutes such as the Human Rights Act 1998. This law, which came into force in October 2000, gives effect to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The Human Rights Act gives effect to the fundamental rights and freedoms detailed in the European law including:

Article 3: freedom from oppression or torture

Article 5: right to liberty and security

Article 8: right to private or family life.

Remedies under the Human Rights Act vary. They include:

  • declarations which support findings of liability. (When a judge makes a declaration of a breach of the Human Rights Act it can be helpful to claimants.)
  • compensation awards.

Where appropriate, claimants can use other statutory laws to seek findings of liability and compensation. Some laws, like the Data Protection Act 2018, specifically refer to compensation for breaches. Courts have discretion to award damages and costs where statute law does not mention compensation.

How Vicarious Liability Works in Sexual Abuse and Physical Assault Claims

The “common law” principle of vicarious liability is often crucial in sexual abuse and physical assault claims. It makes a “party” responsible for the negligent acts or omissions of another person, or people. (The “party” in vicarious liability cases is usually an employer or responsible organisation like a charity.)

Vicarious liability can make sexual abuse by an employee the responsibility of his employers where the acts or omissions are sufficiently connected to their work or role within the organisation. (See Lister & Others v Hesley Hall Limited [2001] where the House of Lords found that the defendant was vicariously liable for its employee’s sexual abuses. The case involved sexual abuse of students by the warden of a private boarding school. The court noted the warden’s close contact with the students during the course of his employment. This meant that there was a sufficient connection between his work and the sexual abuse, bringing it within the scope of his employment under the principle of vicarious liability.)

Sometimes this common law principle is backed up by statute law. For example, in actions against the police s.88 of the Police Act says:

The chief officer of police for a police area shall be liable in respect of [any unlawful conduct of] constables under his direction and control in the performance or purported performance of their functions in like manner as a master is liable in respect of torts committed by his servants in the course of their employment, and accordingly shall [, in the case of a tort,] be treated for all purposes as a joint tortfeasor.

Go to our Police Abuse of Authority for Sexual Gain Compensation Claims page to read more about how we help people get justice in police sexual abuse cases.

Does my Abuser Need to be Convicted?

Criminal convictions in sexual abuse and physical assault claims are helpful, but not essential, to compensation claims. This is because the legal standard of proof is lower in civil cases when compared to criminal matters. In criminal sexual abuse cases the burden of proof is “beyond reasonable doubt”, which means that the judge and/or jury must be very confident in the defendant’s guilt. In civil cases the legal test is “the balance of probabilities”. The court can find in favour of the abuse victim if they can show that it was more probable than not that their abuser was responsible as alleged in the court papers.

The practical consequence of the lower (civil) burden of proof is that you might be able to claim compensation even without your abuser(s) criminal conviction. (But note that criminal injuries (CICA) compensation may not be payable unless you help with a criminal prosecution.)

Instructing Expert Solicitors in Sexual Abuse Law

The law on sexual abuse is complicated as you can see. For that reason, you will want to instruct an expert lawyer to handle your claim. Read Why Use Donoghue Solicitors for Your Sexual Abuse Claims? to find out why we think you will be glad you chose us.

Alternatively, start your sexual abuse compensation claim by

Read this page what is involved in bringing a sexual abuse case if you want to make the process easier. It explains what we need to consider your case.

We look forward to hearing from you.