A NSW Government move to lift unjust legal settlement agreements between child abuse survivors and institutions is a "fantastic thing" and "definitely a live issue" say two survivors who have pushed for the change.
Attorney-General Mark Speakman will release a discussion paper today for reforms allowing survivors to seek just compensation from churches and other institutions, in past cases where as little as $5000 might have been paid for serious sustained child sexual abuse.
"The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed harrowing stories of survivors forced into unfair financial agreements," Mr Speakman said in a call for public submissions to the paper.
"We want to know your views on whether courts should have the power to reopen previously closed agreements between institutions and survivors of child abuse."
Hunter survivor advocate Peter Gogarty welcomed the move and said he had repeatedly raised the issue in discussions with the Attorney-General's office for reforms in line with the royal commission findings.
"I think it's a great move because it's a live issue for many people. It's a move that's consistent with this Attorney-General taking seriously the commission's recommendations. A lot of people were forced to accept these settlements in situations where they were on their own, vulnerable and there was a terrible power imbalance," Mr Gogarty said.
"It comes on the heels of other government reforms, including allowing tendency evidence in child sexual abuse cases. The only thing that needs to be addressed in NSW now is the Catholic Church and the seal of the confessional."
Steve Fisher from survivor group Beyond Abuse said his organisation sent information to Mr Speakman in December pushing for the reforms after Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland introduced legislation to allow courts to set aside unjust settlement agreements.
"This is critical legislation. It means people who had to accept payments that were grossly inadequate and were then forced to sign deeds of release that they would not take any further legal action can have those cases reconsidered," Mr Fisher said.
"NSW is the latest state to initiate these reforms but it should be Australia-wide. It's frustrating, absolutely frustrating, when you see people in some states able to finally get justice, while people in other states are still locked into these patently unjust agreements."
Mr Fisher said the National Redress Scheme, with a cap of $150,000 and a method of assessing claims that is contrary to royal commission recommendations, unfairly punished people who received unjust settlements in the past.
"What the royal commission recommended was ripped apart by politicians and the people most unfairly impacted are those with prior settlements," he said.
"Child sexual abuse is about the abuse of power. The power is taken away from you when you're a child, and it's taken away from you again as an adult when you're forced to accept pitiful amounts from the institutions that abused you. To get some of that power back is fantastic, it's a fantastic feeling."
Former Newcastle Anglican Diocese finance manager John Cleary welcomed the reforms as a necessary next step to achieve justice for survivors in line with his evidence to the royal commission. There was no compensation paid to survivors before Mr Cleary was employed, and an early cap of $75,000 was dropped in favour of more just mediated settlements, he said.
Mr Speakman said the reforms went beyond the royal commission recommendations but "we know how important this issue is to impacted survivors".
"Ensuring greater access to justice for survivors is at the heart of our response to the royal commission," Mr Speakman said.
"We can't undo the horrors of the past, but we can continue to build a fairer and more just legal system for survivors."
The royal commission found that many survivors entered into settlement agreements "under time pressure, and in some cases, without the opportunity to obtain independent advice and with little or no knowledge of what others in comparable positions had been offered or paid".
The discussion paper released today said the royal commission found there was often a power imbalance between the survivor and the defendant when negotiating claims, with the nature of the trauma suffered by the survivor creating a significant power imbalance during negotiations.
The exact number of these settlement agreements is unknown.
A recent Supreme Court case confirmed courts, without the reforms, cannot consider the injustice of past settlements.