Influencing child protection laws

Influencing Queensland’s laws relating to child abuse and child protection

Professor Ben Mathews’ research on the law relating to child abuse and neglect has influenced legislative reform and policy development across Australia and internationally, including reforms to mandatory reporting laws and laws relating to civil claims for injury through child sexual abuse.

Influencing reform of mandatory reporting laws in Queensland

Each year, thousands of Australian children are sexually abused, causing lifelong psychological and social cost, and vast socioeconomic costs. As a method of early intervention, legislation in most jurisdictions compels teachers to report child sexual abuse.

Ben Mathews research, including multiple articles in national and international journals, and a national 10 year data study, was a key driver behind the enactment of the Child Protection (Mandatory Reporting—Mason’s Law) Amendment Bill 2016, which was passed and received assent on 23 September 2016. This reform was enacted to require practitioners who work in early childhood education and care sectors to report suspected cases of significant harm to children caused by physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Ben’s research and his submission to the Queensland Law Reform Commission, which conducted an inquiry into this topic, was cited in the Second Reading of the bill on 14 September (Queensland Hansard, p 3511). The QLRC Report was the main government influence behind the legal reform (Report 73, Review of Child Protection Mandatory Reporting Laws for the Early Childhood Education and Care Sector, December 2015). The QLRC Report itself was heavily influenced by Prof Mathews’ submission to it, his published research, and further data analysis he conducted at the express request of the QLRC to inform the report, citing this body of work over 40 times.

The Child Protection (Mandatory Reporting—Mason’s Law) Amendment Act 2016 amends the Child Protection Act, which commenced on 1 July 2017.

On 1 March 2017, new legislation commenced in Queensland which removes the statutory time limit for civil claims in cases of child sexual abuse. The reforms apply to both institutional and non-institutional contexts where sexual abuse occurred, and the reforms apply retrospectively. These reforms overturn decades of previous legal principle, which had the consequence that many survivors of child sexual abuse were blocked from gaining access to courts to seek compensation for their injuries. The provisions in the Limitation of Actions Act 1974 (Qld) now also enable the revival of some previously settled claims in situations where it is just and reasonable, such as where a plaintiff was pressured into accepting a minimal amount of compensation or face continuing opposition by a powerful defendant.  Queensland’s legislature has now followed the lead of Victoria (1 July 2015) and New South Wales (17 March 2016), enabling survivors of child sexual abuse to bring a civil claim at any time after the event.

Reform of statutes of limitation for civil claims for injury through child sexual abuse

Professor Ben Mathews has been influential in these reforms. In May 2016, he delivered an address at Queensland’s Parliament House urging changes to its legislation, and was interviewed about these issues on ABC Radio National Breakfast and The World Today. He has published scholarly research and advocated for reform in this field since 2003. His recent research on this issue follows on from five articles authored in the early 2000s, one of which in the Torts Law Journal in 2003 is the most downloaded journal article authored by any academic from QUT’s School of Law (over 13,000 downloads). This and other articles, and law reform submissions, present analyses of legislation and case law, psychology, social science and human rights, and conclude that there are sound reasons for removing the limitation period for these cases, and that traditional approaches are not defensible.

These findings were influential in the recommendation made in 2015 by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that all states and territories remove the time limitation for child sexual abuse claims (see Chapter 14 generally, and Recommendations 85-88). Similar submissions were provided in 2014 and 2015 by Professor Mathews at the request of Ministers of the Victorian Parliament and the New South Wales Parliament, influencing reforms in those two states in 2015 and 2016.  Other work was cited in Victoria’s 2013 Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations, which also recommended reform.

Further aspects of reform remain to be developed and it is important for a uniform approach to be implemented nationwide. Victoria and New South Wales have also removed the limitation period for cases of child physical abuse. Similar reforms have been indicated to be likely in Tasmania and Western Australia in 2017. However, the Australian Capital Territory has implemented partial reforms applying only to institutional child sexual abuse. Queensland’s reform does not extend to physical abuse. South Australia and the Northern Territory do not yet appear to have advanced any plans for reform.