On 30 January 2020 the first civil case in England and Wales was considered by the court on whether Jehovah’s Witnesses were vicariously liable for the rape of a member by an elder.

This is the first case of this type. The court used its discretion to let the claim proceed, even though the claim was brought 24 years after the expiry of the limitation period. The court also decided that the Defendant (Jehovah’s Witnesses) was vicariously liable for the rape and awarded the Claimant £62,000 by way of general damages, and the parties were invited to agree the level of special damages between themselves.

In personal injury cases a Claimant usually has 3 years from the date of the injury to bring a claim against the Defendant. This is referred to as the limitation period. The court can use its discretion to allow claims to proceed after the expiry of the primary limitation period as per section 11 of the Limitation Act 1980. Lord Justice Chamberlain considered the reasons the claim was brought 24 years after the expiry of the limitation period and placed emphasis on the claimant’s mental health. The claimant suffered from depressive episodes and more recently post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the assault that prevented her bringing the claim earlier. This was quite a significant decision by the court as it was accepted that her depressive episodes were irregular since the attack, and her PTSD did not start until 2014 when the criminal trial was started. The court heard how there was periods in her life where she was not suffering from mental illness, but Chamberlain LJ understood that this did not mean the she did not have any psychological effects present at those times. Chamberlain LJ took the view that he understood how “deeply troubling it can be for survivors of sexual abuse to disclose their experiences to third parties again and again.”

This is the first civil case in England and Wales that considered whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses are vicariously liable for the rape of an adult member of the organisation by an elder. Ministerial servants and elders are considered to be of high standing in the organisation. The rape took place at the house of the elder after they had been “pioneering” while her husband and his wife were in the next room. The elder was convicted in 2014 for the rape and sentenced to 14 years in prison. In 2015, the victim instructed solicitors to pursue a civil claim against the defendant. Liability was denied and civil proceedings were issued in June 2017.

The defendant did accept that the rape occurred, but did not accept that they were vicariously liable or negligent in how they conducted their investigation into the alleged rape.

The case has practical implications to both limitation and vicarious liability for future civil cases. An important implication is that it is not necessary for the claimant to have suffered a diagnosed psychiatric illness throughout the entire period of the delay. It was repeated that s33 of the Limitation Act 1980 is “framed generally, and there is much scope for interpretation of the claimant’s reasoning.” Allaspects of the relationship must be considered. Also it was established that it is not a requirement “that the act was committed while a religious duty or activity was being undertaken, but it is sufficient that the act was closely connected to the carrying out of religious duties and at an approved location.

It was decided that the defendant was vicariously liable for the rape of the claimant, as the relationship was similar to that of a priest and the Catholic Church. In this case it was decided that the rape was closely connected to the spiritual duties, as the rape happened after they had spent the day “pioneering” (spreading the word of Jehovah.) The court decided that it was unnecessary to decide on the issue of negligence following the finding that the defendant was vicariously liable.

 

If you have been affected by anything in this post and would like to speak to a member of our Child Abuse Compensation team, they can be contacted free on 0330 300 1103 or you can request a call back and a member of our team will contact you at a time suitable for you.


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