Statute of Limitations in Sexual Abuse Claims: Supreme Court of Canada

by John McKiggan

Time Limits for Sexual Abuse Claims

This week the Supreme Court of Canada released its decisions in a pair of historical sexual abuse cases arising out of Nova Scotia. In Borden v. Attorney General of Nova Scotia and Smith v. Attorney General of Nova Scotia, the plaintiffs filed claims against the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children and the Children’s Aid Society alleging the defendants were liable for damages for sexual assault and breach of fiduciary duty relating to sexual abuse that allegedly occurred in the home between 1966 and 1984.

The Home for Colored Children and the Children’s Aid Society applied for summary judgment to dismiss the claims on the basis that they were statute barred pursuant to Nova Scotia’s Limitation of Actions Act.

Takes Time to Discover Effects of Abuse

Courts across Canada have recognized that survivors of childhood sexual abuse may not realize they have a potential claim until much later in life. The so called “discoverability rule” has been applied by courts in every province in Canada. The discoverability rule has also been enshrined in provincial legislation.

Harms Connected to Assaults

Essentially, the discoverability rule means that the time for filling a lawsuit is “paused” until the plaintiff recognizes the connection between the sexual assaults and harms that they have suffered. The time limit is paused if the claimant is not capable of taking steps to pursue their claim as a result of a physical or psychological disability they suffered because of the sexual abuse.

Time is Still Important!

However, the discoverability rule also requires that plaintiffs take steps to move forward with their claim as soon as they discover the connection between their childhood abuse and the effects/harms that they have suffered.

In the Borden and Smith cases the defendants led evidence that both plaintiffs were aware that they were sexually abused as children, they were aware that the abuse was wrong, and they were aware of the effects that they had suffered as a result of the abuse many years before they filed their claims.

As I have reported before, Justice Goodfellow determined that the claims for negligence and sexual assault were statute barred because the plaintiffs had waited too long before filing their claims.

Nova Scotia Sexual Abuse Claims Barred by Statute: Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims can Proceed

However, Justice Goodfellow confirmed that the claim for breach of fiduciary duty was not barred by statute and allowed the breach of fiduciary duty claims to continue.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal confirmed Justice Goodfellow’s decision. Today the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the decision of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal and dismissed the plaintiffs’ appeals. The Court also ordered the plaintiffs to pay the defendants’ cost of the appeal.

Why is it Important?

This decision is important to survivors of sexual abuse because it shows that defendants can successfully defend these claims even before the case gets to trial by arguing that the plaintiff waited too long to file their lawsuit.

As a result of this decision, survivors can expect defendants to spend a great deal of time examining the plaintiff’s past medical and counseling records to see if the survivor ever disclosed the abuse to anyone before they filed their lawsuit. If so, how long did they wait before getting legal advice?

Get Legal Advice as Soon as Possible

The fact is that no matter how difficult it is for survivors of sexual abuse to move forward with these types of claims, it is important that they get proper legal advice as soon as possible about their rights because a survivor’s right to receive fair compensation may be eliminated by a statute of limitation if the survivor waits too long before taking steps to pursue a compensation claim.

For the last 18 years I have dedicated my practice to helping survivors of sexual abuse. If you or a loved one have been a victim of sexual abuse you can contact me for a free copy of my book: The Survivor’s Guide to Abuse Compensation Claims.

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