'He wanted justice' - Claimant in special school abuse case dies awaiting High Court verdict
PUBLISHED: 07:30 14 August 2019 | UPDATED: 07:42 14 August 2019
A former pupil at a special school where abuse was said to be "institutionalised" has become the third to die during a prolonged legal fight for justice.
Lee Hunt, 36, died on July 18, just days after the first High Court hearing into compensation claims by alleged victims of sexual and physical abuse at Oxley Parker boarding school in Colchester.
The abuse is claimed to have affected scores of pupils, many of them vulnerable, between 1972-98. Solicitors for the claimants said it appeared "several paedophiles" operated at the school, which taught up to 80 boys aged 8-17.
Sandra Goodall, who had been in a relationship with Mr Hunt for 11 years, said he had been anxious about how long the court proceedings were taking.
"He had hoped that something would be sorted out in court on July 12," she said. "But it was all just put off to another court hearing months away.
"I know it was preying on his mind. I know from everything he told me that Lee's experiences at Oxley Parker School affected his whole life. He wanted some justice and closure from the court action. I am heartbroken to have lost him."
Solicitors for the claimants said the post-mortem investigation results into Mr Hunt's death were not yet known.
But with two other pupils already having lost their lives while awaiting a decision, Katherine Yates from Andrew Grove & Company solicitors said she was "anxious to get this claim moved on as soon as possible".
"We do not want any more casualties from this group of survivors," she added.
Eastern Counties Education Trust (ECET), which used to own the school, said it was saddened to hear of Mr Hunt's death.
Allegations of sexual abuse at Oxley Parker first arose in 1993, relating to Jonathan Bridgewater, who taught at the all boys' school from 1979.
Bridgewater was suspended over the allegations, which included that he sexually abused a pupil in the school swimming pool and gym. The charges were dropped, however, and Bridgewater began teaching at a new school in Surrey.
Further allegations were made over the following years, including that Bridgewater abused boys in his classroom and home. Attempts were made to identify other young men who may have been abused.
Bridgewater was arrested in January 1996 and later found guilty of buggery, indecent assault and attempted buggery against seven boys.
The Judge, sentencing Bridgewater to 10 years in prison, said he preyed on his victims' vulnerably to satisfy his "perverted desires".
Ofsted inspectors visited the school the following February, placing it in special measures for failing to provide pupils an acceptable education.
Later that year, an independent report found "sexual and physical abuse was institutionalised in the culture of Oxley Parker School".
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The school closed in 1998 due to financial challenges caused be a decline in pupil referrals from local education authorities. It has since been pulled down and replaced with housing.
In 2016 a group of claimants announced they were seeking damages over abuse they suffered at the school.
ECET launched a scheme to compensate former pupils in 2018.
Claimants have two options to claim. Forty-one claimants have opted for a tariff scheme, which pays fixed sums for different types of abuse, ranging from £1,000 for emotional abuse up to £50,000 for rape. A further 28 are taking court action and 25 are yet to make a decision.
Ms Yates said while there was a role for the tariff scheme, it was inadequate for pupils who suffered severe physical or emotional abuse by staff over a long period. "It is not a 'catch all' for all abuse victims," she said. "Many fall through the net."
Ms Yates said limitations of the scheme meant some claimants were forced to take court action. She was therefore "disappointed" to hear ECET's legal team "adamant that they were going to fight all non-tariff cases to trial".
Ms Yates highlighted further problems with the tariff scheme involving claims of abuse by a particular individual.
Although claimants believed he was a member of staff, solicitors for the charity said he was not. Ms Yates is therefore asking anyone who worked at the school or attended as a pupil in the 1980s to get in touch.
"We need to prove even if he was not on the payroll, he was a servant or agent of the school, on the school premises with its permission," she said.
People can email email@example.com or call 01223 367133.
Charity says scheme was agreed with solicitors
The charity which used to own the school said it sought to engage with all former pupils when they raised concerns - and a compensation scheme had been developed by working with solicitors for the claimants.
"Their solicitors assisted in the development of that scheme, including the tariffs, and the scheme has been open to all to join," a spokesman for the Eastern Counties Education Trust added. "Those pupils who have chosen not to join the scheme have done so on legal advice ECET has understandably not been party to."
ECET said it was saddened to hear about the death of Mr Hunt, who had chosen not to join the scheme, having refused a settlement offer in January.
The charity said the court was managing the litigation pursued by other pupils.
"ECET is now a grant giving charity and none of the current trustees had any connection with Oxley Parker School," a spokesman added.