Rita Peak was physically and mentally abused by her father as far back as she can remember. Her older sister, Pauline Whitwell, was raped from the age of nine, and their mother was “beaten basically nearly to death.”
For all the women in the family, it was a horrible life. “He was nasty ... he moved us out into the middle of nowhere and there were no birthdays, no Christmases. He didn’t drink, he didn’t take drugs, he was just an abusive bastard. The only difference between Pauline and I was that he wouldn’t rape me because I wet the bed,” Peak said.
The sisters, who have waived their right to anonymity, fled the home as soon as they were able to but their father was not brought to justice until 2005, when Whitwell decided to go to the police.
Their father’s case set a legal precedent. At aged 76, he was jailed for 11 years for a series of crimes that were more than 40 years old. He has since been released, but Whitwell, 59, and Peak, 54, have not been entitled to any compensation due to a little-known rule which prevents survivors of abuse from making a claim if they lived with their abuser in the years before 1979.
But this week saw a landmark ruling in which a woman – identified only as JT for legal reasons - won a Court of Appeal challenge against the “same-roof” rule.
JT’s stepfather, who abused her when she was aged between four and 17, was convicted of eight offences, including rape and sexual assault, and jailed for 14 years.
But when she applied to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (Cica), which pays damages to victims of violent crime, she was refused a pay-out because of the rule, even though another of her stepfather’s victims received compensation.
Lord Justice Leggatt, who heard the appeal with Sir Terence Etherton and Lady Justice Sharp on Tuesday, said the rule was “arbitrary and unfair.” He said: “A scheme under which compensation is awarded to [the other victim] but denied to JT is obviously unfair.”
The rule was originally brought in to ensure that abusers did not benefit from compensation paid to victims they lived with. It was varied in 1979, so that any future child victims of domestic crimes could claim compensation, but the change was not applied retrospectively. Reforms were made in 2012, but the same-roof rule was maintained because of fears that scrapping it could result in an increase in the number of claims.
The government has 28 days to appeal the ruling, a decision which is still being considered. A Ministry of Justice spokesman told HuffPost UK: “The sexual abuse of children is sickening and has no place in society. We have noted the Court of Appeal’s judgement and will consider the implications carefully. We are looking at concerns about the compensation scheme as part of our work on a victims strategy, which will be published this summer.”
If the ruling is upheld, victims denied compensation under the same-roof rule could be able to re-instigate their claims. At present, JT may only be entitled to a declaration and not compensation because law changes will be a matter for parliament.
Peak said: “Yes, we put our father in prison but we were looked upon like we had asked for it. That’s how they make you feel because you were living with the person.
“You carry this around with you and Pauline and I feel very let down by the system. He got 11 years but where was our protection? Why didn’t we have people at school noticing we were coming in with whip marks on our backs? It was horrific and we deserve to be compensated.”
Though Whitwell also welcomes the ruling, it is bittersweet for her too. “After our father was jailed 13 years ago all we got was knock-backs. For this young lady, for JT to have done what she’s done, it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s about time, but it feels too late for me.
Whitwell continued: “On the one hand our father went to prison, but on the other hand we were told we weren’t entitled to anything. That is one of the most traumatic things to go through as a child and then to be denied help?
“It totally broke me. For a very, very long time, I was stuck as a nine-year-old girl,” she said. “Every time one of my five daughters reached the age of nine, it was me. I would go back in time and look at that little baby of mine and think: ‘How could he?’
“If we’d had a counsellor, if we’d seen any of that money at the time, it would have helped us with therapy. It’s not about the money, it’s about the help.”
Whitwell is disabled and suffers from the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, which she believes may have been triggered by the childhood trauma she endured.
She added: “The ruling will mean something to my girls, who attended court and listened to what I went through, because they wanted to. If this goes through, it would help them to know their mum has got some justice.”
Lawyer Andrew Perriman, who represented JT until recently but continues to advise on her case, told HuffPost UK the ruling is “very significant” and could mean achieving closure for hundreds of survivors of child trauma.
Describing the rule as “barbaric and draconian”, he said: “It would be closure for them. I’ve represented JT for the last four years and I’ve seen how vulnerable she has been. I’ve seen how difficult her life has been as a result of this.
“Prior to this, it was as if Cica was turning around and effectively saying ‘if you’d been abused a day later we would have recognised you, but because you weren’t and your abuse took place before this date, we don’t recognise you.’
Perriman believes any pay-outs will not be hugely substantial, estimating a maximum sum of around £27,000, depending on the types of injuries survivors have suffered as a result of the abuse.
Belinda (not her real name) is another victim of the rule. Now a retired teacher living in Norfolk, she has an active role in the “same roof” survivors’ community.
The 53-year-old is hopeful that she and her fellow survivors will be able to start repairing their lives if the ruling stands, and is not challenged. As well as counselling and support, she says there are practical concerns that need addressing – including dental work.
She said: “Almost all of us say we want our teeth done. All of us have got horrendous teeth. It’s neglect, it’s a lifetime of growing up badly nourished and neglected at home but also self-neglect as adults because we feel so goddamned worthless. Many of us are battling huge debts and we’re living at the most vulnerable edges of society.
“Some say ‘I want to give some money to my kids because of what living with me has done to them.’ That makes me cry because they are still punishing themselves.
“Another woman told me she wants to buy a second-hand motorbike and go and see the world.”
Belinda was sexually and physically abused by a male relative from the ages of five to 14. She said: “I was brutalised. I still have phobias today. I can’t bear the smell of gas because I used to be locked in a cupboard with a gas leak if I didn’t do what he said. I would be hung by my hands over a gallery bannister and I used to pray that he’d drop me because if I was paralysed I wouldn’t be there anymore.
She added: “Even if the ruling hadn’t gone in our favour, we are not going to back down and that message needs to go out to the government.
“It has 28 days to appeal and we’re not backing off. If they want to go back and appeal on this, they’ll really be showing their true colours. If you did a poll, I’m sure most of the public would be shocked it exists.”
If the government does appeal, Perriman said it would be likely to progress to the Supreme Court.
In Scotland, a woman called Monica Allen, who has also waived her right to anonymity, is likely to have her case heard early next year. JT’s case was brought in England and Wales, and there are separate challenges to the rule in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Court of Appeal’s ruling was welcomed by Barnado’s, Liberty and Victim Support.
In a joint statement, Barnado’s chief executive Javed Khan, Victim Support’s chief executive Diana Fawcett and director of Liberty Martha Spurrier said: “This victory brings us another step closer to an overhaul of the unfair and illogical Cica.
“The outdated ‘same roof’ rule has prevented survivors of child sexual abuse from claiming compensation because their abuser was someone they lived with before 1979.
“Since 2015 the Cica has refused 180 applications. The ruling paves the way for them to receive the justice they deserve, so they can move on with their lives.”
The heads of all three charities called on the Government to “urgently rewrite” the Cica guidance.
Following the verdict, JT said: “I cannot believe the outcome. I am in shock, after so many knock-backs in my life, I was expecting the worst. I am delighted at the decision, not just for myself but hopefully this will help others like me.
I was only four-years-old when I was abused, I had nowhere to go at that age. I have lived with this all of my life but finally I feel like I have achieved something good out of such an awful situation.”