Church abuse survivors allege negligence in class action against own lawyers

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

January 31, 2024

By Russell Jackson

Eight survivors of institutional childhood sexual abuse have launched a class action against one of Australia’s most prominent sexual abuse law firms, which they allege failed to obtain proper compensation from the institutions responsible for their abuse.

In a group proceeding commenced in Victoria’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, former clients of specialist abuse law firm Waller Legal alleged that it failed to properly claim for their “loss of earnings” compensation when pursuing their legal claims, leaving some of them more than $1 million short of the compensation they were entitled to.

“It is alleged that Waller Legal settled claims for substantially less than what the claims were worth, on the basis that a category of compensation (economic loss) was not properly sought,” said a summary of the proceeding.

“The claim in this proceeding alleges that Waller Legal were negligent and were in breach of contract.”

Court documents state that the lead plaintiff in the proceeding — a survivor of sexual abuse by a Redemptorist Brother, who will use the pseudonym “Jane Jones” to protect her identity — received $202,000 in compensation, after costs, when represented by Waller Legal in 2020. The woman’s sister and brother, who were abused by the same offender, were also represented by Waller Legal. In a similar case, the sister received $135,000 after costs when represented by Waller Legal in 2017, But when she sought alternative legal representation in 2022, the woman’s new lawyers challenged the previous deed and she was awarded a further $1.35 million.

The woman’s brother was left with $185,000 in compensation from a 2017 claim by Waller Legal. In 2023, after switching lawyers, the man was awarded a further $1.74 million in damages.

‘Our job is to help people obtain compensation’

The lawyer launching the class action, Rightside Legal partner Michael Magazanik, told ABC Investigations his firm is now representing “about a dozen” former clients of Waller Legal whose claims meet the same criteria.

“They’re all deeply unhappy and distressed about the compensation they received for what are devastating life-long injuries,” Mr Magazanik said in a statement provided to ABC Investigations.

“The class action asserts that Waller Legal was negligent and the claims were settled for too little. For that reason the class actions seeks damages from Waller Legal.

“I can’t say at this stage what the ultimate likely number of claimants will be.”

Under its principal solicitor Dr Vivian Waller, Waller Legal is among the most prominent specialist abuse law firms in Melbourne.

Dr Waller was a central figure in the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, at which the firm says she represented 20 survivor witnesses in case studies related to the Catholic Church, Victorian state wards, Yeshiva Bondi and Melbourne, and the criminal justice system.

On a pro bono basis, Dr Waller also represented the complainant in the criminal prosecution and appeals process related to allegations against Cardinal George Pell.

A section of Waller Legal’s website, which outlines its philosophy, states: “We look after child abuse survivors. Unlike other firms, we don’t do anything else.

“We listen. We act. Our job is to help people to obtain compensation.”

In response to inquiries from ABC Investigations, a spokesman from Waller Legal’s legal representatives Lander and Rogers said: “On 1 March 2024 the Court will hear an application that the group proceeding should be struck out.”

Waller Legal is facing further action from dissatisfied former clients, ABC Investigations has confirmed. Since 2021, another personal injury law firm, Arnold Thomas and Becker, has issued at least 10 individual Supreme Court writs that allege professional negligence by Waller Legal.