In August 2019, adult victims of childhood sexual abuse were given a year-long window of opportunity to seek justice for their suffering. The ‘look-back window’ suspended the statute of limitations under the Child Victims Act to allow survivors to file their case between 14 August 2019 and 14 August 2020. This window was later extended by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing survivors to file suit for historic claims of abuse under the Child Victims Act until 14 August 2021. Prior to the look-back window, under the Child Victims Act, victims of abuse had from 1 to 5 years from the date of their 18th birthday to file a suit.
Since the news of the look-back window, other States have taken a similar approach including New Jersey, who provided a two year window for survivors, and California who permitted a three year window. These are just two examples of fifteen states who have amended their laws on limitation when it comes to claims arising out of historic sexual abuse. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic is currently a key factor being taken into account when making decisions on limitation, it is without doubt that these changes were also influenced by the Me Too movement and the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.
The look-back windows are placing responsibility on organisations who employed or were responsible for the individual perpetrator, and will allow investigations to be conducted into whether the organisation(s) had in place appropriate safeguarding measures in previous decades.
The further extension of the look-back windows have been welcomed by different states in light of the difficulties survivors face with coming forward. This was confirmed by Senator Holyman when commenting on the multi-year windows introduced by New Jersey and California, stating that “it can take decades for adult survivors of child sexual abuse to come forward”. Following the announcement of the extension of the look-back window in New York, it was reported in September last year that the state had seen at least 1,000 new child sexual abuse lawsuits since May 2020 with many more to be expected before the new deadline of August 2021.
Whilst it may be that a strict approach on limitation in civil abuse claims across England and Wales is not often taken due to varying factors including COVID and the fact that the survivor may only be brave enough to come forward later in life, there has been no formal reform on the issue as of yet. Given the number of States in America that have followed suit with look-back windows, it is possible that this domino-effect may reach other countries including England and Wales at a later stage.