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Limitation Act, Contracts Review Act and Historical Sexual Abuse

Magann v Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Parramatta [2019] NSWSC 1453

This case involves the recent decision on 28th October 2019 relating to a historical sexual assault that occurred in the 1980s. The case was initially found to be statute barred through the Limitation Act 1969 (NSW) which had prevented Mr Magann, the plaintiff, from making his claim in court. Following the Royal Commission Report, however, the Limitation Amendment (Child Abuse) Act 2016 (NSW) amended the Limitation Act and from 17 March 2016 limitation periods for child abuse actions were removed.

After the 2003 NSW District Court ruled that Mr Magann’s case was statute barred, the Diocese of Parramatta entered into a deed of agreement with Mr Magann and agreed to settle on an agreed sum of $95,000. Mr Magann’s obligations under the Deed of Release were to release the Diocese from all actions, suits, claims and demands relating to or arising from the Claim or the Complaint or any other matters set out in the Deed. Furthermore, Mr Magann was not to make any adverse comments, publicly or otherwise, about the Diocese and its related agencies and clergy.

After the changes to the Limitation Act in 2016, Mr Magann sued the Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for damages arising out of historical sexual assault allegations. The Church defended the claim by reliance on the Deed of Release.

Mr Magann sought relief under the Contracts Review Act and argued that the contract, or provisions in the contract were unjust in the circumstances, he also argued that the Church acted unconscionably and thirdly, that he did not possess the requisite capacity to enter into the deed at the time because of his mental state.

The Court found in relation to the Contracts Review Act that that if a defendant is not engaged in conduct which deprives a claimant of any real or informed choice and the terms of the contract are reasonable, a contract will not be considered unjust simply because, inter alia, he had no legal advice; West v AGC (Advances) Ltd (1986) 5 NSWLR 610.

On the issue of unconscionable conduct, the Court held that it had found that Mr Magann had not established that he suffered from any special disadvantage and that the Church took advantage of it. No predatory state of mind on the part of the Church had been established.

Finally, the Court held that it was not satisfied by the medical evidence that Mr Magann lacked the relevant mental capacity as at 16 October 2007.

The Court declared that the Deed of Release was valid and thus it extinguishes the defendant from any future liability from matters contained in the proceedings.

This case is particularly interesting as it highlights the binding nature of a Deed of Release agreement even if it is entered into without legal advice. It also sets a precedent that the amendment to the Limitation Act does not give rise to the ability of settled claims to be brought alive again in the courts. Though this case is unique in the sense that the plaintiff and his lawyer would not have been able to predict the amendments to the Limitation Act, it does highlight the need for legal advice, particularly in circumstances that may be emotionally challenging.

If you have a complex legal matter or a contract you would like to have reviewed, please contact Kent Law Group on 4323 1900 and book an appointment at your convenience.