Tragic cases of child abuse are causing a surge in the number of personal injury claims against local authorities.
Public sector lawyers at Midland firm Browne Jacobson said they had seen a significant rise in the number of personal injury claims by individuals claiming that the authorities failed to protect them from physical and sexual abuse, often by members of their own family.
And it is believed that the cases of Victoria Climbie and, more recently, Baby P have prompted more claimants to come forward and lodge a claim against their local authority at the time.
Sarah Erwin-Jones, a partner in the Social Care Team at Browne Jacobson, said the firm was currently advising on more than 35 ‘failure to remove’ claims. She added: “A few years ago these cases were few and far between but in the last 18 months we have seen a significant increase in the number of claimants coming forward.
“The allegations often relate to events that took place tens of years ago but that has not stopped claimants coming forward.
“A case heard last month shows that even when relevant documents have been destroyed, and pivotal witnesses cannot be traced, the courts may allow claims to proceed out of time.
“It’s a worrying trend for social workers, local authorities and insurers.
“Whilst it is difficult to predict future trends all the indications are that the number of claims will rise further as it becomes more acceptable and easier for victims to come forward.”
A recent report by the Social Work Task Force concluded that staff shortages in the social care sector are seriously compromising the quality of front line services. It recommended reforming training and increasing the role of watchdogs among other suggestions to try to stop cases of child abuse going undetected as they had before in cases like that of Baby P.
The 17-month-old boy was killed after being repeatedly abused at home. The child services unit at Haringey Borough Council was criticised for failing to pick up on the abuse.
Ms Erwin-Jones added: “Our own experience is that many Social Service departments are working with inadequate resources with personnel gaps left unfilled or covered by agency workers.
“As more claimants come forward it is important for local authorities to improve their record keeping and set performance standards from the outset if they want any chance of successfully defending the claims made against them.
“They also need robust witnesses who are trained and therefore have the confidence to explain the complexity and professionalism of their decision making in the event of a court case.
“The new generation of social workers need to be prepared for the inevitable risk that they may be called upon to give evidence in future civil claims.
“The establishment of a national social work college should help to address this need.
“It should give those committed and hard working professionals who enter the profession the skills and tools they need to both deliver a quality social care service and capture the information needed both to support that service, and to defend any criticism of it that might take place in the future.”
“Finally, staff need to understand that they personally owe a duty of care to their employers and to service users, and that this duty will travel with them throughout their careers.”