Case Note: SDA v Corporation of the synod of the Diocese of Rockhampton & Anor  QCA 172
Between 1973 and 1980, SDA (a pseudonym for the Appellant) was a child resident in the care of St George’s Home for Children (‘the Home’). The Home was run by the Corporation of the Synod of the Diocese of Rockhampton (‘the Diocese’). Reverend M was the Home’s superintendent for approximately 10 years before SDA arrived and he retired in about 1974. 45 years later, SDA commenced proceedings against the Diocese by issuing a notice of claim under the Personal Injuries Proceedings Act 2002 (Qld) (‘PIPA’). SDA alleged that they had suffered personal injury (of a psychiatric nature) as a result of being sexually abused by Reverend M, other staff members and other male residents.
Pursuant to section 27 of PIPA, SDA sought disclosure of “… all information about a report, complaint, warning, concern or investigation regarding any act of sexual or physical abuse on a child committed or alleged to have been committed by [M] at [the Home] between 18 December 1963 and 10 January 1975.” This information was related to their claim that they had been sexually abused while they were a resident at the Home.
This Diocese disclosed some documents to SDA that verified Reverend M’s appointment to his role as superintendent, this role description as well as the date Reverend M left the Home in December 1974 however, the Diocese took issue with the request for information. They denied that section 27 required them to provide any other information requested by SDA because it did not relate to the incidents particularised in the notice of claim. The Diocese further stated that the request was too broad because it extended beyond “the circumstances of, or reasons for” the alleged abuse within the meaning of section 27(1)(b).
Under Chapter 2, Part 1 of PIPA, a person that seeks to commence legal proceedings (‘claimant’) must provide a notice of claim containing prescribed information and the person responding to the claim (‘the respondent’) must obtain information about the incident which has caused the alleged relevant personal injury. The respondent is required to take steps with a view to settle the claim before the matter is brought before a Court.
Section 27 outlines certain obligations for each party which mostly concerns the exchange of information and documents. The purpose of this division, as expressed in section 21, is “to put the parties in a position where they have enough information to assess liability and quantum [monetary amount] in relation to a claim”.
A respondent is then obliged to give the claimant “information that is in the respondent’s possession about the circumstances of, or the reasons for, the incident”.1 Incident is defined as “…the accident, or other act, omission or circumstance, alleged to have caused all or part of the personal injury”.
When interpreting section 27(1)(b), it is necessary to consider its context within the Act and the role it plays in putting the parties in a position where they have enough information to “assess liability and quantum in relation to a claim”.
Decision of the District Court
SDA made an application to the Court for orders requiring the Diocese to comply with what they submitted was the Diocese’s obligation to give SDA information that was requested under section 27(1)(b)(i). The issue concerned the information about complaints made by other residents of the Home relating to Reverend M.
On the evidence, the Diocese never received any complaint against Reverend M prior to his retirement however, decades later, the Diocese received complaints about him from previous residents. The Diocese acknowledged that they did have some information about these complaints in their possession.
The primary Judge held that “the [first] respondent is not obliged to provide information in response to a request under s 27(1)(b)(i) which relates to prior similar incidents, unless it can be demonstrated that the prior incidents have causative effect, in the sense of being a strand in the rope of causation. It cannot be considered that information received 25 years after the fact could have had any bearing on what the first respondent did or did not do at the time of the incident, nor could it be said to have put the first respondent on notice of the risk” and that there was “a lack of causative effect between the information sought and the incident … such that the information sought could not be considered a strand in the rope of causation and as such is not disclosable under s 27(1)(b) of the PIPA”.
Decision of the Court of Appeal
SDA challenged the decision of the primary in the Court of Appeal. On Appeal, His Honour Justice Morrison did not agree with the decision of the primary Judge. His Honour concluded that the nature of the information concerning previous similar incidents involving Reverend M, which must be given by the Diocese to SDA under section 27(1)(b)(i), was not limited to information about previous incidents that had a causative effect (i.e., caused or assisting in causing) on the incident alleged by SDA.
Further, His Honour held that upon the evidence before the Court, it could not be said that there was no causative effective between the information requested and the alleged incident in the notice of claim. Therefore, section 27(1)(b)(i) obliges the Diocese to give SDA the requested information.
The Court then sought to identify “potentially relevant information in [the Diocese’s] possession.” The fact that complaints were made about Reverend M to the Diocese was considered “information” however, given those complaints were made a number of decades after the alleged abuse, that could not in itself amount to “information about the circumstances of, or reasons for” the alleged abuse.
On the evidence, the Court held that the only potential sources of information that fell within that description were the statements made about Reverend M in the respective complaints. “Information” excludes “information which [the Diocese] knew was false” but it did not exclude “information that the Diocese believed, without actual knowledge thereof, that it was false”.
The Court ordered that further hearing of the appeal (where the Court should deal with the construction of section 27(1)(b) as a preliminary issue) be adjourn to a date to be arranged by the Registrar and that costs of the appeal up to the date of the order be reserved.
Take homes from the decision
When you have issued a Notice of Claim in a personal injury proceeding, the respondent to your claim is obligated to provide you information in response to the incident particularised in your notice as outlined in section 27 PIPA.
The Court in this case has made it clear that disclosable information cannot exclude information that may have been received after the fact as it may have relevance in explaining “the circumstances of, or the reasons for, the incident” which caused your personal injury. Further, a respondent cannot exclude information that they believe is false but have no actual knowledge that that information is, in fact, false as it may be proven to be true by another party.
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This article was written by Ashleigh Fanning
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