Stubbings and Ors. v. United Kingdom

Application No. 22083/93; 22095/93
Download Judgment: English
Country: United Kingdom
Region: Europe
Year: 1996
Court: European Court of Human Rights
Health Topics: Child and adolescent health, Violence
Human Rights: Right to due process/fair trial, Right to privacy
Tags: Assault, Child development, Children, Domestic abuse, Rape, Sexual abuse, Sexual assault

Stubbings was born in 1957, placed in the care of Mr. and Mrs. W by a local authority when she was  two years old, and adopted by them when she was three. She alleged that she was sexually assaulted by Mr. W and committed acts of indecency at his instigation on a number of occasions between December 1959 and December 1971 (when she was fourteen years old). She also alleged that Mr. and Mrs. W’s son forced her to have sexual intercourse with him on two occasions in 1969 when she was twelve and he was seventeen. Since 1976, Stubbings had experienced severe psychological problems which  led to her admission to hospital on three occasions. Stubbings alleged that, in 1984, following treatment by a consultant child and family psychiatrist, she realized for the first time that there might be a connection between the childhood abuse and her mental health problems. In 1987, she commenced civil proceedings against her adoptive parents and brother for the alleged assaults. The three-year statute of limitations for her claim had passed, but the appeal court was prepared to exercise its discretion to allow the action to proceed on the basis that Stubbings did not understand the causal link between the assaults and her mental health problem until 1984. However, the house of lords held that the three-year period only applied to unintentional breach of duty and that claims in respect of intentionally inflicted injuries (such as rape and indecent assault) were subject to a six-year limitation period that the court had no discretion to disregard. Stubbings’ suit was dismissed because six years had passed.

Another applicant, JL, was born in 1962 and alleged that between 1968 and 1979 her father frequently took pornographic photographs of her and subjected her to serious assaults of a sexual nature. Between 1981 and 1991 she suffered from bouts of depression and found it difficult to form relationships. In 1990 JL began to have nightmares about her childhood abuse and was referred to a psychologist. She allegedly gained insight into the connection between the abuse and her mental health problems for the first time but this initially worsened her condition, causing her to attempt suicide. In 1991, she filed a lawsuit against her father and also reported the alleged abuse to the police. The police interviewed JL and her father but decided not to bring charges. JL again attempted suicide when she was informed of this decision. Her civil claim was discontinued on legal advice that, after the house of lords ruling in Stubbings’ case, it had become time-barred in 1986.

A third applicant, JP, was born in 1958 and had attended a state primary school between the ages of five and seven. Her parents had withdrawn her because she had become depressed and was suffering from nightmares. It appeared that the deputy headmaster had been removing her from lessons, purportedly to look after his two-year-old daughter. Thereafter JP had difficulty in sustaining relationships and felt ‘different’ and lonely. Following her father’s death in 1985, she suffered extreme feelings of bereavement which eventually drove her to seek psychiatric help. A course of therapy prompted her in 1989 to experience a violent recall of being subjected to sexual abuse by the deputy headmaster. JP subsequently recovered memories of other assaults by him, including incidents of rape, and filed a lawsuit against him in 1992. Legal aid was withdrawn and the action discontinued following the house of lords decision in Stubbings’ case.

A fourth applicant, D, was born in 1962. Between 1968 and 1977 she was allegedly subjected to repeated sexual assaults (including rape) by her father. She asserted that, as a result of this abuse, she suffered from feelings of despair, depression, fear and guilt and found it difficult to sustain relationships. In  1991 D’s father pleaded guilty to a charge of indecent assault based on his abuse of her and  was sentenced to one year’s probation. D considered this insufficient punishment and brought civil proceedings against him in  1992. A report from a psychologist stated that it would have been impossible for her to have taken this step earlier because she had largely blocked out memories of the abuse as a means of survival. Her action was discontinued following the house of lords ruling in Stubbings’ case.

All the applicants complained about being denied access to a court with respect to their claims and about the difference in the rules applied to them and other types of claimants. S, JL and JP also complained about the failure to protect their right to respect for their private lives by not providing a civil remedy for their childhood abuse.

[Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]

The Court held that there had been no breach of Article 14 (prohibition on discrimination) in conjunction with Article 6(1) (right to a fair trial) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms ("Convention"). The Court reasoned: (1) that limitation periods in personal injury cases ensured legal certainty and finality, protected potential defendants from stale claims which might be difficult to counter and prevented the injustice which might arise if courts were required to decide upon events on the basis of evidence which the passage of time might have rendered unreliable and incomplete; (2) that the very essence of the applicants’ right of access was not impaired since they had six years from their eighteenth birthday to initiate proceedings and prosecution could be brought at any time; (3) that the time limit was not unduly short and was longer than that allowed in some international treaties; (4) that the rules applied were proportionate to the aims in holding (1) since, if the applicants had commenced actions shortly before the expiry of the period, the courts would have been required to adjudicate on events which had taken place approximately twenty years earlier; (5) that it was not commonly accepted in European States that in such cases the limitation period should be founded upon the principle that time only started to run from the date when the material facts in the case were known; (6) that the United Kingdom legislature had devoted a substantial amount of time and study to the consideration of these issues and the house of lords decision was not taken arbitrarily; (7) that, although developing awareness of the problems caused by child abuse and of its psychological effects on victims might require an amendment of the rules applicable in the near future, the Court should not substitute its own view for that of the State authorities as to the appropriate policy since the very essence of the applicants’ right of access had not been impaired and the restrictions pursued a legitimate aim and were proportionate; (8) that sexual abuse was a grave type of interference with the essential aspects of the private lives of children and other vulnerable individuals and they were entitled to State protection, in the form of effective deterrence from it; (9) that this was provided both by the criminal law and civil remedies but the positive obligation to secure respect for private life did not necessarily require States to provide unlimited civil remedies in circumstances where criminal law sanctions were in operation; (10) that there was no disparity of treatment as between the applicants and victims of other forms of deliberate wrongdoing with different psychological after-effects because the same rules of limitation were applied to each group; (11) that it would be artificial to emphasize the similarities between victims of intentionally and negligently inflicted harm but to ignore the distinctions between them; (12) that, even if a comparison could properly be drawn between these two groups of claimants, the difference in treatment might be reasonably and objectively justified by reference to their distinctive characteristics; and (13) that it was quite reasonable (and fell within the margin of appreciation accorded to States) to create separate limitation regimes since, for example, the existence of a civil claim might be less obvious to victims of negligence.

[Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]

"[T]he victims of intentionally and negligently inflicted harm cannot be said to be in analogous situations for the purposes of Article 14 (art. 14). In any domestic judicial system there may be a number of separate categories of claimant, classified by reference to the type of harm suffered, the legal basis of the claim or other factors, who are subject to varying rules and procedures. In the instant case, different rules have evolved within the English law of limitation in respect of the victims of intentionally and negligently inflicted injury, as the House of Lords observed with reference to the report of the Tucker Committee (see paragraph 15 above). Different considerations may apply to each of these groups; for example, it may be more readily apparent to the victims of deliberate wrongdoing that they have a cause of action. It would be artificial to emphasise the similarities between these groups of claimants and to ignore the distinctions between them for the purposes of Article 14 (art. 14)." Para. 73.

Comment from INTERIGHTS: The Court has consistently taken the view that access to the court is not an absolute right (eg Bellet v France, (1996) 10 Interights Bulletin 136); the acceptability of any restrictions will turn on how much of a constraint they are in practice on vindicating a claim. One factor seen as important by the majority in regarding the limitation period in these cases as not objectionable was the continued availability of criminal proceedings; it did not, however, expressly address the fact that this involves a higher standard of proof or that the arguments invoked relating to unreliable and incomplete evidence are as important for a fair hearing in criminal as in civil proceedings. Judges Foighel and Macdonald dissented on the basis that not enough account was taken of the problem of discoverability and (for Macdonald alone) the nature of the injury caused by a violation of the childrens’ rights. The former consideration would have been more compelling if the United Kingdom had been alone in refusing to adopt a more understanding approach and if the state of medical knowledge had been more certain. The majority followed the Court’s general conservatism where scientific matters are involved but, although it did hold out the prospect of a different approach being required where the effects of sexual abuse were better understood, it did seem to assume that the applicants were in a position to bring proceedings within the present period; this is demonstrated by the emphasis on a claim being less obvious to negligence victims when dealing with Art 14. The consideration of whether the different treatment of injuries for limitation purposes was objectively justified followed the Court’s established approach but its application might be regarded as deficient in the absence of any detailed examination of whether people in the applicants’ position were likely to be more aware of the possibility of bringing a civil claim than those injured through negligence. Judge Macdonald saw no basis for treating the two groups differently. Although the abuse was an interference with the private life of the children, no failure to provide protection against it could be sustained. However, this reveals a limitation in the degree of protection required; there is a need for the possibility of proceedings being taken against the abuser and a duty to take them where knowledge (actual or constructive) exists of any wrongdoing but there is no obligation to ensure that effective measures to undo the harm inflicted are actually undertaken. A more understanding approach to limitation periods would not, of course, always result in a satisfactory outcome for the victims of abuse; the fair hearing right of the alleged abuser will still have a bearing on the admissibility of ‘evidence’. [Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]