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Published: 26 November 2018
Author: Ian Dallas

Why it's difficult for survivors of abuse to come forward

Elizabeth Becker

Ian Dallas heads up Institutional Abuse at RCT Law. He has vast experience in litigating cases of abuse and is responsible for leading Victoria’s largest team of lawyers with special expertise in sex abuse law.

In this candid interview, Ian shares his insights into the legal options available for survivors of abuse and explains the nuts and bolts of the National Redress Scheme so that people know what to expect from the Redress process, or indeed if they should go down a different path.

Below is Part One of Ian's interview. It is a must-read for anyone interested in justice for survivors of institutional abuse.

Read Part Two of Ian's interview here: National Redress - how it works, is it for you?

Ian, tell us about your interest in sexual abuse law.

My interest in institutional abuse cases has been there for a while. My overall experience in the law has always been about connecting people's real-life experiences to the law and to helping them find solutions in the legal system.

Clearly this is a prevalent issue, unfortunately, and it has grabbed my attention in terms of what I see is the way people have been subjected to abuse because of a misuse of positions of power. Trying to use the legal system to protect them is what really drives me and being in the position to explain how the law might operate in ways that people understand.

Lawyers can pontificate and can give complicated advice to clients and that's not the way we do it here. Those who have suffered need to have things spelt out in a way that they can understand, and also to feel that their lawyer understands to some extent what they've gone through. We obviously don't get it exactly, but we can listen and then try to find a way that's going to help that person in their particular circumstances.

The satisfaction I get from working in this area of institutional abuse law is to assist clients to feel engaged, to feel that they've been able to tell their story, to feel that they have understood the process to the extent that that is possible, and to reach an outcome that is helpful to them in their life.

Watch Ian's interview below

What are most people searching for when they come to see you?

People might think it's all about money, in my experience, it's partly about the money but for most people, it's about more than that.

It's first of all about being heard and believed because the history of a survivor tends to be precisely the opposite, that nobody's interested in what they have to say. And in the past, they've been told that they're making things up or they're just told to go away so it's really important to hear what people have to say and to tell them that you believe them.

You must understand that people vary. Some people really want an apology for what's happened, some sort of recognition from the institution and that it accepts what has happened.

Others are really interested in change, understanding that there has been some change in the organisation as a result of what they have experienced. This can be very powerful for some clients to know that they have been an agent in changing the organisation.

Then, of course, the money is significant for people in their lives, it can make a big difference and often the money itself can act as a form of recognition.

So there is a combination of things depending on who it is. Clearly, the money is important, but it comes not just as money but also as an acknowledgement of recognition of what's happened to the person

Watch Ian's interview below

What types of clients come to see you about institutional abuse?

The clients who come here are from a variety of backgrounds.

Some people will have told their story before, perhaps have gone to the police, perhaps had some years of counselling, and it’s only now that for whatever reason with the encouragement of friends or family or a counsellor, that they are getting legal advice.

Sometimes people come to us and it's the first time that they've told anyone. Clearly, if that's the case it is a really big deal because telling someone your story is always hard and when it's the first time it's even harder. So it really is a range of stages that people have but in my experience even if they've told the story before it's always hard for them to tell their story again.

Certainly, our approach here is to avoid having to get the story again if there are other ways. For example, if a person has seen the police and made a police statement we will always say let's get a copy of the police statement and some really hard things will be there so if we don't have to ask you about that again. We are very conscious of the sensitivities around clients having to tell their story again and how much it costs them to tell the story. There are other clients who want this story to be heard and want to keep telling it and if that's the case then our job is to listen.

Some clients have a lot of questions particularly around costs and it's always really important to be able to meet those questions and to be open and frank. In my experience over many years, clients can handle the truth. What really upsets them is when their lawyer doesn't talk to them or doesn't answer their questions. Often clients will ask the same thing time after time. In my view, it's important to simply answer the question because if they are still asking then they haven't understood the first time.

Watch Ian's interview below

Why are some people reluctant to approach someone that could help them?

I think there are quite a lot of people who find it difficult to come and see a lawyer about problems and in the area of institutional abuse, and we certainly find a reluctance in clients to come forward.

I’m sure that there are a lot of survivors of abuse who haven't yet come forward and are struggling with whether they should. I think one of the reasons for that is that most people are not used to talking to a lawyer and their idea of a lawyer is formed perhaps from television where the lawyer is intimidating, perhaps uses long words and tells them what to do.

We're very conscious of undermining that stereotype, which has a lot of truth to it, and so our approach is to try and make it easier for people to come forward and to explain to them what the process is in ways that they can understand. We allow them to tell their story and offer them some options so that they are not required to fit into a particular way of going forward if they want compensation or some other form of redress. We offer them some options, and whatever they choose there will be points along the way where they can have some control and make some decisions, rather than feeling that they're on a conveyor belt and it’s out of their control.

Watch Ian's interview below

What would do you have for someone who is considering whether to seek legal advice?

I'm sure there are people who are wondering whether they should take the step of seeking legal advice. I would say that there's nothing to lose by asking the question, and it's important that they should feel that they are able to choose how far they might go in terms of how much of their story they might want to reveal.

Certainly, one option is to come and talk to one of our lawyers and say: “I don't want to tell my story but in general terms, something bad happened to me, what are my options?”

We will then explain those options and allow that person some time to go away and think about it. If at that point they are ready and want to tell their story, we are ready to listen and help.

Watch Ian's interview below

What is distinctive about the way Ryan Carlisle Thomas approaches institutional abuse cases?

When we look at the way that we train staff in dealing with clients who have suffered institutional abuse we are very keen to provide an overall approach that is not just about seeking compensation. It is about hearing the story, and about making clients aware of the larger possibilities.

The approach that we use at RCT Law is distinctive in that it takes into account the needs of the client first, rather than simply putting them into a cookie cutter legal process and saying this is how we do it and if you don't like it you can go somewhere else. That's not the way we do it and it's very much considering the needs of the client at all times.

Watch Ian's interview below

What can someone expect when they see a lawyer about institutional abuse?

When clients come to us for the first time our expectation as lawyers is pretty low in terms of what they might bring with them.

We expect that they'll bring questions, we expect that they will have a story which they may or may not want to tell on their first occasion. Certainly, if they have paperwork that relates to their claim, for example, a police statement that's really helpful for us. A police statement saves the client having to go into detail about their claim and is an important document. We don’t need a lot of documentation the first time we see a client but certainly if it's available that's helpful.

We try and make that initial experience for a client as easy as possible. While we would tend to see clients one-on-one, there are some people who find it easier to bring a friend, family member, counsellor with them for support particularly on that first occasion, and certainly, that's fine.

But other people don't want anyone else to know. They might tell us when you communicate with me please be very careful if you ring my number don't tell them who you.are. We've learned to be very conscious of confidentiality around claims like this and the way we communicate with clients needs to be very sensitive and attuned to what the client needs.

Watch Ian's interview below

For more information about our Institutuional Abuse practice and the new National Redress Scheme, please visit our Sexual and Institutional Abuse page.