Employers usually bear indirect legal responsibility for misdeeds committed by their staff in the course of their jobs – but what if they are unpaid volunteers? The High Court tackled that issue in awarding substantial damages to a man whose childhood was blighted by sexual abuse at the hands of a football talent scout.
The man, in his 40s, was a talented 13-year-old footballer when he was recruited to a professional club's Centre of Excellence. He was amongst a squad of young players on a tour of New Zealand and Thailand when the scout subjected him to abuse. Prior to the tour, the scout had four times been convicted of indecent assaults on young boys.
Subsequently marrying and fathering three children, the man for many years buried toxic memories of the abuse, but was eventually prompted to seek legal advice by the publicity surrounding the Jimmy Savile scandal and the courage of three professional players in revealing abuse they had suffered as football-playing schoolboys.
When he launched proceedings against the club, the Court found the man to be a transparently sincere and honest witness and accepted his account of the abuse in its entirety. Given the mental anguish the abuse had caused him and the pressure the scout had exerted on him to keep quiet, his failure to take legal action earlier was entirely understandable. The club's argument that his claim should be struck out for delay was therefore rejected.
In ruling it fair, just and reasonable to hold the club indirectly – or vicariously – liable for the abuse perpetrated by the scout, the Court noted that, although he was an unpaid volunteer, he performed the critical role of spotting promising young players, taking them under his wing, coaching and watching them. He ran a junior feeder team and encouraged boys to form an allegiance to the club.
Granting him the run of its premises, the club gave him credibility by lavishing free tickets and access on him and his charges. It conferred on him the aura of having his own room, a special place in the stand and association with first-team players. All of his activities were targeted at recruiting talented young players for the club.
In assessing the man's compensation, the Court found that the club had made matters worse by never accepting any responsibility for what happened and never even accepting that the abuse took place. The man's mental health had been seriously affected and he had been prescribed medication for anxiety and sleeping problems. The Court ordered the club to pay him £19,071 in damages.