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Published: 26 March 2019
Author: Ian Dallas

Time to empower courts to overturn unfair abuse settlements

The Victorian Attorney-General must act

The Victorian Government should act now to set aside deeds of release which have been used by many institutions such as the Catholic Church to limit their exposure to proper and just payments to the survivors of abuse.

The conviction of the former Archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal George Pell, on historic sexual abuse charges, brings to the fore the unfair settlements made under the Melbourne Response.

The Melbourne Response was a scheme devised by then Archbishop Pell to minimise the impact of claims on the Catholic Church. As a result, many survivors settled for less than what their claims were worth. Further, they were required to sign binding Deeds of Release, preventing them from pursuing claims into the future.

It was not only the Catholic Church that resolved claims in these unfair ways. Other institutions, including churches and schools, placed pressure on claimants to resolve their claims for far less than they were worth, at a time when claimants faced significant legal issues.

The legal landscape has now altered, which means that claims are worth far more now than what claimants were forced to accept in the past. Yet institutions now seek to rely on the deeds of release, by which claimants surrendered their rights.

Ryan Carlisle Thomas considers that it is now urgent that the issue of past unfair settlements be addressed by legislation in the Victorian Parliament. We are urging the Attorney-General Jill Hennessy to bring legislation to Parliament to give the courts the power to overturn past unfair or unreasonable settlements.

In the past institutions used their power to effectively impose inadequate settlements on survivors who had no other option but to accept the offer. For many, that process involved a further trauma brought about by the inequality between them and the institution.

We therefore call upon the Victorian Government to enact legislation in similar terms to that already in place in Western Australia and Queensland. Such legisla-tion would give to a court the power to set aside a deed of release where it is just or reasonable to do so.

Ryan Carlisle Thomas will continue to urge the Attorney-General and the Victorian Government to put in place suitable legislation as a matter of urgency.

Once this legislation is in place, those survivors who resolved their claims in the past for inadequate compensation will have the opportunity to seek further advice and compensation. The opening of these settlements, by legislative means, is needed as a matter of justice.

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