Dilworth School to face class action over historical abuse against students

Former Dilworth students who were allegedly abused at the school are launching a class action lawsuit.

A group of old boys have approached Christchurch law firm GCA Lawyers, which has begun collecting statements and doing the groundwork for a lawsuit against the wealthy Epsom school.

The school is already involved in a trial involving seven former staff members, who have been charged with historical offending against 17 people in the 1970s to the early 2000s. The charges were laid after the school undertook its own review and referred the matter to police.

GCA Lawyers principal Grant Cameron claimed a class action was justified on the basis that Dilworth had breached its fiduciary duty.

“Basically there was a systemic failure on the part of the school to provide the protective environment that was lawfully required.”

Six Dilworth old boys had been interviewed by his firm so far and another six interviews were lined up. It was aiming for at least 10 potential claimants before progressing legal action.

An Australian-based litigation funder has expressed an interest in funding the legal action.

Cameron said the law firm had approached the school’s legal team to arrange a meeting.

“I was told … that they were not interested at this time.”

Dilworth School said through a spokeswoman that it could not comment while matters were before the courts.

It has previously acknowledged that its historical procedures for dealing with allegations of abuse did not meet current standards, and apologised to old boys.

Dilworth is the wealthiest private school in New Zealand, with assets of around $900 million and nearly $20m cash in hand. But Cameron said the claimants were not motivated by money.

“Compensation is [rarely] a motivating factor. To the extent that it might be a way of forcing genuine change, then it’s an incidental, but prevention and an apology is [usually] sought.”

One former old boy, who claimed he was sexually abused by a teacher at Dilworth in 1973, said the class action was a way of seeking accountability.

“I’d like to see the school be open and transparent,” he said.

“I don’t care if I get a single cent. It’s about them being accountable and being honest.”

He said that in his opinion, the school had covered up misbehaviour by abusers and quietly moved them on when they were caught.

“They would be there one day, gone the next. Nothing was ever said about it.”

University of Auckland law lecturer Nikki Chamberlain, who has studied class actions in New Zealand, said she believed it would be the first class action relating to historical abuse in this country.

Chamberlain said the proposed legal case would hinge on whether there was a common interest in fact or law which bound the class members together.

“Historical abuse claims can be problematic because the facts around an abuse case can be quite different. So therefore it might be hard to say that there are common interests.

“Having said that, overseas class members have done it by alleging, for example, that a school had failed to train or supervise or discipline staff, that they were indifferent to abuse and violence allegations, or they impeded investigations of abuse or covered abuse up.”

Cameron’s law firm previously won $6.5m in compensation from the Crown for 95 victims of abuse at Lake Alice Hospital. His firm claimed $2.5m in legal fees.

It is now representing 3000 people in the Christchurch Southern Response class action, which is pursuing recovery of several hundred million dollars from the Crown over quake-related insurance claims.

The proposed class action comes as the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care prepares for hearings on faith-based institutions, which will include schools like Dilworth.

The inquiry has rattled some institutions and schools. It is understood that one private school in Auckland has done risk modelling on the potential costs it could face in a hypothetical historical abuse case.

Basing its modelling on high-profile cases overseas, it concluded that the likely legal costs or settlements would force the school to close down.

Editor’s note
It has been a shock for New Zealanders to learn that several former staff at Auckland’s Dilworth School have been charged with sex and drug offences against boys over more than three decades. We want you, our readers, to know that the Herald will follow this story wherever it leads. We have a team of journalists prepared to investigate and we want to hear from you. If you have any information please contact us at [email protected]

Where to get help:
The Operation Beverly team handling the Dilworth investigation can be reached on 09 302 6624 or email [email protected]
If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334. (available 24/7)
Male Survivors Aotearoa offers a range of confidential support at centres across New Zealand – find your closest one here.
Mosaic – Tiaki Tangata: 0800 94 22 94 (available 11am – 8pm)
If you have been abused, remember it’s not your fault.

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