Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police have so far paid more than £2m to solicitors defending compensation claims from victims of the town’s child sexual exploitation scandal – significantly more than the amount paid for settled claims to date.
The council has paid close to £1.2m to and the police almost £1m to firms of solicitors defending 81 and 78 claims received respectively from victims who were exploited during a 16-year period of sustained and organised abuse by mainly Pakistani-heritage men in Rotherham.
Responding to Freedom of Information requests, the council said it had settled 12 claims by the beginning of October and a response this month from the police said it had settled 15 claims.
Neither would say how much had been paid in compensation but David Greenwood, the solicitor representing virtually all the victims, said the total paid by the council and police so far amounts to £662,000. The claims are typically brought simultaneously against both public bodies for failing to intervene and protect victims from abuse.
The council refused to provide the figure paid in legal fees for a year following a Freedom of Information request, claiming disclosure would hurt its commercial interests.
The authority eventually relented following a complaint to the Information Commissioner but declined to say how much it had paid in compensation on the grounds it is victims’ personal information and would potentially endanger their mental health if a figure became known.
South Yorkshire Police used similar arguments to refuse to disclose compensation payments.
Mr Greenwood said he accepted the council and police have a duty to check claims were justified and payments to lawyers will include work done on cases that may be settled in future.
But he added: “Knowing what I know about these cases I think they could have come to the table much earlier and negotiated settlements with us much earlier at much less cost to the public purse.
“It's unacceptable really as to why they are taking the stance they are on some of these cases.”
South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, who is responsible for the force’s budget, defended the level of spending.
He said: “South Yorkshire Police and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council have a dual responsibility.
“On the one hand, they have a duty to properly compensate those who were failed by both organisations in the past. On the other hand, they have to ensure that these payments are fair to tax payers. There are costs involved in claims handling, especially at the beginning of a process when a claimant is seeking to specify his/her claim.
“Everything is kept under review and scrutiny.”
The number of claims received represents only a fraction of the more than 1,500 victims the National Crime Agency, leading the ongoing police investigation, believes to have been abused in Rotherham. The number increased from the 1,400 Professor Alexis Jay estimated in her landmark 2014 report into child sexual exploitation in the town between 1997 and 2013. The report highlighted “blatant” failures by the council and police to respond to widescale abuse.
The FOI response from Rotherham Council said payments to its defence solicitors were £1,156,336 up to 2 October.
A spokesman said: "The Council has been clear throughout that any and all child sexual exploitation survivors who are entitled to compensation should receive this. We have budgeted accordingly and we will meet all our obligations.
“However, each claim must be assessed individually and this can be a complex and time consuming process. The Council has engaged external solicitors specifically to facilitate this process to ensure that it is conducted fairly across all claims.
“This is not a matter of ‘defending’ the Council, but about making sure all claimants are treated equitably and without prejudice. At the present time only a relatively small number of claims have been settled, and because of this we cannot provide a running commentary that may inadvertently identify individuals, but we continue to work to ensure that others reach a satisfactory conclusion for all involved, most importantly survivors themselves.”
The FOI response from South Yorkshire Police provided on 7 November said its payments to solicitors totalled £968,259.
A spokeswoman said: “Since 2014, South Yorkshire Police has received a number of claims and we are continuing to work with the complainants and their legal representatives in respect of these. As a number of claims remain outstanding, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.”