OF the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s many fine recommendations, the one which promises tangible benefit to the large population of survivors is the national redress scheme.
But as we approach the event which is proposed to add symbolic recognition - the national apology to be delivered by the prime minister on October 22 - the redress scheme has fallen under significant and deserved criticism.
The redress scheme was never intended to provide full compensation to survivors. In the words of the royal commission, monies paid under the scheme are meant just as a tangible recognition of that hurt and injury. But the scheme is failing to deliver on even this modest objective.
It has an expected pool of 60,000 claimants, but how to manage, on a fair basis, distribution of the redress funds? The scheme relies on an assessment matrix which decision makers use to evaluate and ascribe a dollar amount to individual claims, but is controversial.
Survivors in the least-worst category will be paid up to $15,000. For contact abuse the most likely payment is $40,000. For penetrative abuse (the worst category) $90,000 is the probable figure. Few survivors will qualify for the maximum amount allowable under the scheme, $150,000.
These financial limits are driven by one overriding constraint. The whole scheme must cost no more than about $4.5 billion.
To make this modest scheme less bureaucratic and more sensitive to the population it is intended to address, urgent work is required. Some applicants will be in their late 70’s. Some will be afflicted by serious mental illness with post-traumatic stress disorders most common. Many are very frail, emotionally vulnerable and highly suspicious of officialdom. As there is no way of knowing which applicants inhabit these vulnerable states the scheme must assume that all applicants do. All steps should be taken to avoid retraumatising them. Critical aspects of the scheme fail this test.
The redress scheme has fallen under significant and deserved criticism.Abuse survivor James Miller
The gateway for claims is a 46-page application form which is unnecessarily complicated, intrusive and misleading. For example, applicants are required to detail the impact of abuse across their entire lives in a long list of areas such as educational achievement, sexuality, alcohol and drug use, self-harm, homelessness and mental health, to name but a few. The purpose of seeking this intrusive information - which will require applicants to think deeply about the troubled lives they have led - is to determine if they qualify for as little as an additional $5000.
This line of inquiry must be dispensed with. It is highly reckless to require such people to trawl back over their most traumatic life memories. It is a very safe assumption that all applicants have suffered such effects. The small amount of additional money should be automatically added to all payments.
The broader reason for which the application form seeks so much intrusive information is so payments can be tailored to the seriousness of individual cases. In other words, the scheme is administered such that it will write cheques which reflect the substantive merits of each claim. Fair as this sounds it represents a serious overreach which will burden the scheme with unnecessary costs and impede the roll out of payments.
I urge the scheme to abandon its current philosophy and adopt a simple notion of distributive justice applied in light of the size of the scheme and the three categories of abuse. On this approach all exposure claims would be paid $15,000 and all contact claims $45,000. All penetrative claims would attract immediate payment of $100,000 with evidence of special egregiousness subject to further consideration that may result in an additional $50,000.
One further matter merits special mention, as it requires immediate action. At the end of the form applicants are required to sign a statutory declaration swearing to the truth of all information in the form. It is stated, in this part of the form, that false information may lead to four years jail. This is entirely unnecessary. Applicants should simply be asked to sign the form above a printed declaration that the contents are true and correct to the best of their information and belief.
A statutory declaration is also technically inappropriate in this case, as a number of the questions require applicants state their opinion about important matters. Worse still, to have the statutory declaration sworn applicants must approach a justice of the peace, or other authorised person, and explain that they are making an application for compensation because they were sexually abused. How utterly insensitive.
This misplaced legalism will, no doubt, discourage many people. It has to go.