Supreme Court ruling extends vicarious liability in abuse claims

landmark judgment in the Supreme Court today has pushed forward the law on vicarious liability, in a way that may help survivors of child abuse hold responsible parties accountable, and obtain the compensation they deserve.  The ruling in Catholic Child Welfare Society & Ors v Various Claimants and The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian School & Ors concerns a dispute between the Catholic Diocese of Middlesbrough and the De La Salle Order (the “Christian Brothers”) over who should pay compensation to victims of child sexual abuse committed at the St William’s School a number of years ago.

The St William’s School was managed by the Diocese, but many of its teachers and staff were members of the Christian Brothers.  A number of abuses were committed by members of the Christian Brothers; these abuses occurred over decades, and one of the former Christian Brothers headmasters, James Carragher, was convicted of numerous sexual offences against boys and jailed in 2004 for 14 years.  Over 170 men brought the original claim against the Christian Brothers and the Diocese for redress.

The crux of the appeal related to whether the Diocese alone is vicariously liable for the abuses of these men, or whether liability is mutually held by both the Diocese and the Christian Brothers.  In 2010 the Court of Appeal held the Diocese solely liable for the abuse, and for paying £8 million in compensation to the many victims.  The Diocese appealed, claiming that the Christian Brothers ought to share liability for what happened, in light of their close involvement with the day-to-day activities of the school and the numerous abuses by Christian Brothers staff.  Today’s ruling has allowed the Diocese’s appeal, and in the process made new and powerful law for claimants.  Writing for the Court, Lord Philips summarised the decision by stating:

This is not a borderline case.  It is one where it is fair, just and reasonable, by reason of the satisfaction of the relevant criteria, for the Institute to share with the Middlesbrough Diocese vicarious liability for the abuse committed by the brothers.

The ruling also bolsters a number of important advances in the law of vicarious liability. It reaffirms that unincorporated associations, like the Christian Brothers, can be held vicariously liable for abuse committed by their members.  It also reaffirms the possibility of holding two or more different defendants vicariously liable for a single act.

Today’s ruling is not the only recent important judgment regarding vicarious liability and clergy abuse; this past summer, the Court of Appeal ruled in JGE v The English Province of Our Lady of Charity & Anor that a bishop could be held liable for torts committed by a priest within his Diocese, and today’s ruling made reference to that decision in its reasoning.  Together, these cases represent significant advances, which should assist survivors of childhood sexual abuse in holding all responsible parties to account and seeing justice done.

The judgment in this claim can be read here: http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKSC/2012/56.html