Justice critic Helen Conway Ottenheimer is calling on Justice Minister John Hogan to make changes to the Limitations Act, which would remove the statutes of limitation on physical abuse.
The Progressive Conservative member told CBC News she had a meeting with Hogan in February about the issue, and said he seemed receptive to her request. Conway Ottenheimer said she hasn’t heard anything since then, but wants to see changes soon.
“I don’t understand why there’s no movement with this,” she told CBC News on Tuesday morning. “First of all, it’s an access to justice issue…. People who have been, as children, physically abused, they need to be able to access the justice system and not have barriers or roadblocks.”
Newfoundland and Labrador is one of only two provinces in Canada to have a statute of limitations on physical abuse. People have a strict timeline to come forward with lawsuits — either two years after the abuse happened, or in the case of child abuse, two years after the victim turns 19.
There is an exception for cases where the effects of the abuse are not discovered until later in life — through therapy, for example — but that’s capped at 10 years after the abuse, or 10 years after a victim turns 19.
Court challenge ongoing
Longtime abuse litigator Lynn Moore has a case before the courts in which the province has admitted her client was abused while under the supervision of the Department of Social Services, but it will not settle with the man because he came forward after the limitations period had lapsed.
Moore is challenging the province’s position by arguing the Limitations Act is infringing on her client’s Charter rights. She said the easier fix would be to change the legislation, rather than challenging its constitutionality.
Conway Ottenheimer said it’s frustrating to see abuse survivors told they are out of time.
“Our justice system should be protecting our vulnerable people, people who have been subjected to harms like this,” she said. “They should be encouraged to come forward. That’s why we need to see legislation like this that is forward-thinking, that is broad, and that does not restrict people from exercising their fundamental rights.”
Minister hints at review of legislation
Conway Ottenheimer raised the issue in the House of Assembly on Tuesday afternoon, asking Hogan why there is no statute of limitations for sexual abuse, but there is for physical abuse.
“It would be inappropriate for me to give a specific answer about the interpretation of the Limitations Act while there is an ongoing case before the courts right now,” Hogan said. “But I will say, of course, that with any piece of legislation we always review them to see what’s appropriate, to look at other jurisdictions across the country and this is one we will continue to look at as well.”
The only other province with a limit on childhood physical abuse is New Brunswick. Newfoundland and Labrador removed the statute of limitations on sexual abuse in the 1990s, after the Hughes Inquiry into the widespread abuse at the Mount Cashel Orphanage.
That paved the way for hundreds of men to sue the institutions responsible for their abuses, which have resulted in bankruptcies for the Christian Brothers of Ireland in Canada and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s.
Conway Ottenheimer said the unknown cost of future abuse claims could be a deterrent from changing the Limitations Act.
“That may be a factor, that there may be a concern that this would precipitate an onslaught of cases coming forward, but if that is the case, we need to see that evidence,” she said. “If that is the case, please bring it forward and show us.”
Conway Ottenheimer wants to see the legislative changes made in this sitting of the House of Assembly, which is scheduled to close by the end of May.
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