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If you are the victim of past abuse including sexual, physical and psychological abuse while in the care of an institution (such as school, religious organisation) then you may be entitled to compensation.

Tragically, 1 in 4 Australian children have experienced some form of abuse before the age of 18 and many historical abuses took place in institutions with a duty to care and protect children. The Royal Commission identified 4,445 institutions where child sexual abuse had occurred as a result of evidence which included over 42,000 phone calls and 25,964 letters or emails.

Surviving past institutional abuse can be an arduous journey beset with challenges. This comprehensive guide aims to assist survivors like yourself who experienced physical, sexual, or mental abuse in institutional settings. Here, we outline your rights to compensation, following the Royal Commission's findings into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, whilst providing an overview of the claims process and key time limits.

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The Rights of Survivors: Seeking Compensation for Historical Abuse in Australia

In the aftermath of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, survivors gain recognition and access to certain rights to reparation and reconciliation including more streamlined access to compensation.


A key outcome of the Royal Commission was the establishment of the National Redress Scheme. Designed as a process of redress for individuals who experienced institutional child sexual abuse, this scheme provides survivors with access to counselling, a direct personal response, and potentially, a Redress payment.

Compensation Claims

Survivors also garner the right to lodge a compensation claim for the abuse they suffered while under the care of an institution. The specific claim process depends on the circumstances, including the location and nature of the abuse.


Survivors hold the right to receive a meaningful apology from the institution they were in care that acknowledges the harm and hurt caused by the abuse.

Legal Representation

Survivors are entitled to have a legal representative present throughout the compensation process to help protect their rights and interests.

Institutional abuse survivors now have the right to seek justice and compensation for their suffering within a legal framework.

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Identifying Institutional Abuse: Types and Examples

Institutional abuse spans a wide range of degrading and damaging conduct, all of which sustain harm to victims across multiple facets of their lives. In the following section, we will outline different types of institutional abuse:

Physical Abuse

Deliberate physical harm or injury inflicted on a person. This may include hitting, slapping, pushing, kicking, misuse of medication, restraint or inappropriate physical sanctions.

Sexual Abuse

Direct or indirect sexual activity where consent is not or cannot be given. This may range from sexual harassment to violent, forcible activities.

Emotional/Psychological Abuse

Verbal and non-verbal acts causing mental distress. This encompasses humiliation, threats, isolation, instilling fear, or other manipulation tactics.

Financial/Material Abuse

Exploitation of a person's resources without their consent. This could entail theft, fraud, pressure in connection to wills or financial transactions, misuse of property, possessions or benefits.


Persistent failure to meet a person's basic needs, such as food, heating, hygiene, and access to medical care.

Discriminatory Abuse

Unfair treatment based on a person's age, gender, race, culture, sexuality, or disability. This covers harassment or slurs, denying access to services, or unequal treatment.

Each form of abuse is abhorrent in its own right. However, it's vital to note that abuse in institutions often involves a blend of these types, compounding the harmful impacts on victims.

The Impact of Institutional Abuse on Survivors: Physical, Sexual, and Mental Injuries

Institutional abuse is far-reaching, leaving indelible marks on survivors. Here we outline the different forms of injuries that may be suffered:

Physical Injuries

These may include but are not limited to bruises, fractures, burns and head injuries inflicted by physical assault. Such injuries often leave lasting physical scars.

Sexual Abuse Injuries

Survivors of sexual abuse might suffer from physical damages, such as Sexual Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and fertility complications, and agonising mental trauma including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and intimacy issues.

Mental and Emotional Injuries

Without a doubt, institutional abuse can lead to severe psychological damages. Survivors may suffer from mental disorders including PTSD, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts. It may also impact social interactions, trust issues, and hinder their ability to form healthy relationships.

It is crucial to remember that these consequences are not exhaustive. Each survivor's experience is unique and may have damaging effects beyond what has been mentioned. It's common that the factors above have led to a change in the likely life outcomes of victims such as income and relationships.

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Compensation for Institutional Abuse: Exploring Your Options

If you are a survivor of historical institutional abuse, it's important to understand your rights for seeking compensation. This could include claims for physical, sexual or psychological injuries suffered while in the care of an institution or organisation, such as a school or church.

The types of compensation you can potentially claim may include:

Payments for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life

Reimbursements for past and future medical expenses

Compensation for loss of past and future earnings

Costs related to home modifications or care support needed due to the injuries

Interest calculated from the date of the injury to the resolution of the claim

The specific amount of your claim will largely depend on the type and severity of harm suffered, as well as the impact of the abuse on your life. As such, it's crucial to seek professional advice to ensure your interests are adequately represented.

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The Claims Process: Step-by-Step Guide to Seeking Compensation

Seek Initial Legal Advice

Start by discussing your case with a legal professional from Smith’s Lawyers. They can provide you with an overview of your rights and potential avenues for compensation. 

Formally Engage a Lawyer

Once you're comfortable proceeding, you will officially engage a lawyer. Smith’s Lawyers will advise you on the strength of your claim and guide you through the next steps.

Gather Evidence

You'll need to collect relevant documents and information that can support your claim. This could include medical records, counselling notes, letters, or information about your time at the institution. Organise these documents to provide the clearest picture of the abuse endured.

Prepare your Statement

Draft a detailed statement describing the abuse experienced. This statement is vital in building a strong case and should be carefully crafted with the help of your lawyer.

Lodge the Claim

Your lawyer will then lodge the claim with the institution involved or their insurer. This involves submitting the detailed statement and supporting evidence.

Attend Mediation

It's common for parties to attend a mediation process to attempt to resolve the claim before going to court. Your lawyer will negotiate on your behalf at the mediation. This is where the majority of claims are settled. Your matter will only proceed to court if a satisfactory outcome cannot be reached outside of court.

Obtain Compensation

If your case is successful, you will be awarded compensation. Your lawyer will then assist with the final steps to ensure the compensation is properly disbursed and finalise the legal process.

Time Limits for Seeking Compensation

Survivors can seek recompense regardless of how many years have passed since the incident for institutional sexual abuse claims.

However, it's imperative to note that this unlimited period for lodging complaints does not apply across the board to all types of claims. For instance, those involving some forms of mental or physical abuse may still be beholden to the standard three-year limit common in Queensland law. Hence, survivors should try to act promptly in these instances and seek legal advice at the earliest to ensure they do not miss this critical period.

Institutional Abuse Claims FAQ's

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What type of institutions are covered for abuse claims?

Various institutions where children and vulnerable adults were placed in care have historically been settings for institutional abuse. These include: 

  • Schools: Particularly those that are boarding or residential, have sometimes sheltered abusers who exploit their positions of authority and trust, causing lasting harm to children under their care.
  • Churches: Instances of child sexual abuse within religious orders have come to light over the past few decades, with victims often suffering in silence due to the reverence and deference given to religious figures.
  • Children's Homes: These residential facilities, tasked with looking after children separated from their families, have frequently been revealed as sites of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Foster care organised by the State is also a form of institutional abuse where there was negligence.
  • Healthcare Institutions: Especially in mental health settings, vulnerable patients can become victims of exploitation and abuse by those who are supposed to ensure their care and recovery.

Sports Clubs: There have been cases of coaches and trainers using their influence to groom and subsequently abuse young athletes, exploiting their dreams and aspirations for a competitive advantage.

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What were the key facts and findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse?
  • The establishment: The Royal Commission was created in 2013 to inspect allegations of child sexual abuse within Australian institutions, including religious groups, schools, and care organizations.
  • The objective: Its primary mission was to investigate institutions' responses to alleged abuse, ensuring accountability and identifying failings in protocol and procedure.
  • The findings: The Commission issued a final report in 2017, revealing widespread abuse across many institutions, and highlighting systematic failures to protect children or adequately respond to claims of abuse.
  • The recommendations: Following its investigations, the Commission made numerous recommendations, including changes to criminal justice and child protection systems, and the provision of redress and rehabilitation for survivors.

The impact: As a result of the Commission's work, many survivors of historical institutional abuse have gained the right to seek compensation for their experiences, leading to a significant shift in national consciousness about institutional responsibility.

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How important is documentation and what if I don’t have any?

Documentation plays a crucial role in any institutional abuse compensation claim, serving as compelling evidence that strengthens your case. Swift and meticulously gathered documentation can prove the occurrence of abuse and its adverse impact on your life. Given the historical nature of the abuse, obtaining certain documents may prove challenging; however, this is where lawyers can offer assistance. 

Essential documents that can fortify your claim span numerous categories: 

  • Medical Records: These could involve physical examinations, psychological assessment reports, and any other medical documents indicating the repercussions of abuse.
  • Care records: Documentation housed with the institution in which the abuse occurred can be a potent source of evidence. These might consist of reports, journals, or even comments shedding light on your time within the institution.
  • Personal Documents: Diaries, letters, or any other contemporary document recounting your experiences can enhance the credibility of your account.
  • Witness Testimonies: Any corroboration from peers or staff during the time of abuse can be highly beneficial in validating your claim.

Obtaining some of these documents, however, can be tricky, particularly for survivors of historical abuse, and this is where lawyers can assist with document gathering from relevant institutions.

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Will I have to give evidence in court?

In the vast majority of cases, a court appearance to present evidence isn't required as settlements are often reached outside of court. However, in the uncommon event that a claim isn't successful in these out-of-court situations, you will be given the opportunity to make the decision whether to proceed with presenting your evidence in court. This choice remains entirely within your power.

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Will I have to face my accuser?

Understandably, the notion of facing your abuser can inspire fear and trepidation. If your claim falls under the National Redress Scheme, you will not be required to face the accused. This scheme allows survivors of institutional child sexual abuse to seek remedy without a direct confrontation with the abuser. Instead, you provide statements and evidence to evaluate your claim, ensuring a sensitive and respectful treatment of your case. 

At Smith’s Lawyers, we empathise with your situation and will do everything within our legal power to minimise the possibility of a direct confrontation with the perpetrator of the abuse. Accusations pertaining to institutional abuse are dealt with utmost seriousness and sensitivity, and your wellbeing forms the guiding principle of our approach.

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Can I still claim if my abuser has passed away?

On occasion, a survivor of institutional abuse may ask, "Is it still possible to claim compensation if the offender has passed away?" Unquestionably, the answer is yes. It is indeed possible to lodge a claim even if the individual who committed the abuse is deceased. 

Typically, a claim for historical abuse is made against the institution or organisation that should have protected you, rather than the individual offender. In such cases, the institution's failure to safeguard your welfare forms the core of your case. This holds true regardless of whether the offender is still alive or not. 

Additionally, it's possible that the institution, be it a school, church, or other organisation, holds an insurance policy that specifically covers claims of this nature. Such insurance policies are designed to provide compensation to survivors, regardless of the status of the individual offender.

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What other support and resources are there for abuse survivors? Organisations and Helplines

For survivors seeking support and assistance, there are numerous organisations and helplines available. The following resources can offer much-needed help and guidance:

  • Australian Childhood Foundation: This organisation provides support for children & adults dealing with the aftermath of child abuse. Visit their website here or contact them on 1300 381 581. 
  • Blue Knot Foundation: A support service for adults impacted by child abuse. Visit their website here or call their helpline on 1300 657 380. 
  • Headspace: A mental health service designed for young people aged 12-25 years old dealing with health issues, including experiences of abuse. Visit their website here or contact them on 1800 650 890. 
  • Relationships Australia: A leading provider of counselling and support services. Visit here or contact them on 1300 364 277. 

Lifeline Australia: A national crisis support and suicide prevention service. Visit their website here.

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