One of the many recommendations made by IICSA following the Accountability and Reparations investigation was that the Local Government Association (LGA) develop a Code of Practice (CoP) for councils’ response to civil claims of non-recent sexual abuse.
The CoP is available on the LGA website. The introduction to the Code explains that whilst it is a non-binding document councils are encouraged to adopt it as a good practice guide to complement existing work in this area. Reference is made to the ABI Code of Practice which should be regarded as complementary to the CoP.
Given that IICSA will on 20th October make recommendations in relation to limitation and redress and mindful of future policy and caselaw changes the CoP is to be regarded as a “live” document capable of evolving. Councils are also encouraged to adopt the principles of the CoP in when handling more recent cases of sexual abuse and those involving adults.
The overarching principles of the CoP are based around ensuring that claimants are treated sensitively throughout the process and that there is no “one size fits all” process but it is flexible enough to respond to individual needs of individual claimants. Based on that principle the CoP then sets out broad issues which councils are encouraged to consider when dealing with these types of claims as follows:
Individual claimants needs must to be listened to and responded to and supported as appropriate. Consideration should be given to make claimants as comfortable as possible. The process itself must be clear and expectations and timescales explained to claimants. Plain English and a “human” approach should be used in communications.
During the process support should be offered to claimants and their families. That support will be different for each claimant and may need adapting over the course of the claim. Councils need to be mindful that they may well be the defendant and the organisation offering support and where that occurs the division of these roles should be clear.
Apologies and assurances.
Reference is made to the ABI Code and the guidance that apologies are not admissions of liability. Consideration should be given as to the nature of the apology, when it is made and by whom. Defensive responses should be avoided and reassurances given about current improved policies relating to child safeguarding where appropriate.
Consistent with the ABI Code the CoP states that the defence of limitation should not be automatically adopted and only used in exceptional circumstances. In relation to the use of experts councils are encouraged to use a single joint expert where possible.
Processes, practice and communications
It is important that the process for dealing with claims of child sexual abuse are clear and established from the start. Councils should consider who should be involved with the management of the claim from across the organisation to ensure sufficient support for claimants and effective and sensitive communications. That includes ensuring a consistent council staff team to manage claims who have received appropriate specialist training and emotional support to deal with claims of this nature. Where a police investigation is ongoing, protocols should be established to ensure that the relationship between organisations works efficiently and is appropriately resourced.
Councils will also need to consider internal and external communications to ensure that their responses are transparent and consistent particularly given the sensitivities of these claims and the media interest they often attract.
Comment: Unsurprisingly this CoP has followed the themes and tone of the ABI Code. It will be interesting to observe how the CoP evolves following the recommendations of IICSA on limitation and redress expected in the final report to be published on the 20th October 2022.