Hidden from view: A van believed to be carrying Rolf Harris leaves Southwark Crown Court. Photo: Getty Images
Lawyers are investigating whether a class action can be brought by women claiming they were abused by disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris.
Barrie Woollacott, a Melbourne based lawyer with Slater & Gordon, said they were exploring the possibilities of the class action being brought by Australian, New Zealand and British women in the United Kingdom.
He said this strategy had been ruled out in Australia but they were hopeful the British legal system was flexible enough to accommodate such an action.
“There is plenty of precedence where an action is brought by foreigners to a country where the perpetrator now lives,” he said.
In further bad news for 84-year-old Harris, the jail term of five years and nine months for the indecent assault of four girls aged eight to 19 could be increased if Britain’s attorney-general sends the case to the Court of Appeal.
Attorney-General Dominic Grieve has 28 days to decide whether the sentence, which could mean the Australian entertainer walks free in less than three years, should be appealed as too lenient.
Sexual abuse support groups in Britain and Australia were quick to call for a longer sentence.
Harris displayed no emotion when he heard his fate during a dramatic sentence hearing in London on Friday night Australian time. In a sensational climax to the trial, he received a blistering rebuke from Justice Nigel Sweeney, who told him he had shown ‘‘no remorse’’.
‘‘You have done many good and charitable works ... but the verdicts of the jury show that in the period of 1969 to 1986 you were also a sex offender," Justice Sweeney said. ‘‘You took advantage of the trust placed in you because of your celebrity status to commit the offences against three of your victims. [In another] you committed [the offence] in breach of the trust her parents placed in you.
‘‘You clearly got a thrill from committing the offences while others were present or nearby. Your reputation now is in tatters ... you have been stripped of your honours and you have no one to blame but yourself."
While the judge sentenced Harris to terms ranging from six months to 15 months on the 12 counts, many of them were to be served concurrently. Justice Sweeney said he would have imposed a higher sentence but was constrained by the law as it was at the time of the offences.
He said there were factors to be considered in mitigating the term, including his wife Alwen’s ill health, and the ability to spend the twilight years of his life with his family.
Earlier, the court was read victim impact statements from all four of Harris’ victims in the case.
The main complainant, a childhood friend of his daughter, Bindi, said that as a young girl she ‘‘had aspirations to have a career, settle down and have a family’’.
‘‘However, as a direct result of his actions, this has never materialised ... Rolf Harris had a hold over me that made me a quivering wreck.’’
The four women also made clear the abuse was much harder to deal with because Harris was so loved by the public.
Australian woman Tonya Lee said Harris’ assaults on her in 1986, when she was 15, were a ‘‘turning point’’ in her life from which she never recovered. ‘‘What Mr Harris took from me was my very essence,’’ the 43-year-old said.
Harris’ youngest victim was seven or eight when he groped her after she had asked for his autograph in the late 1960s. ‘‘I have carried what Rolf Harris did to me for most of my life,’’ she said in her statement. ‘‘It took away most of my childhood.’’
Prosecutor Sasha Wass, QC, said in light of the unanimous guilty verdicts, police would not continue to press four child pornography charges against Harris, relating to images found on his computer when his house was raided in 2012.
Harris’ counsel Sonia Woodley, QC, said the court had heard of the entertainer’s ‘‘dark side’’, but ‘‘it would be unfair to ignore the good he has done in his life’’.
Apart from the main complainant, the assaults he had been found guilty of were ‘‘brief and opportunistic rather than predatory’’, she said.
The court had been provided with a medical report that Ms Woodley said showed a prison term would shorten his life. ‘‘He is already on borrowed time,’’ she said. The sentence would have a bigger impact on him than it would on a younger, healthier man.
She asked the court to impose a sentence that ‘‘will give him some hope of a future, so he will be able to spend the remaining twilight years of his life with his family’’.
After being sentenced, Harris was escorted from the dock by two officers and transported in a van to Wandsworth prison in south-west London.
Harris may also face a raft of damages claims in the civil courts. Justice Sweeney said he would not consider compensation because assessing the psychological harm done to the victims was a complex process. But the judge said Harris would have to pay the prosecution’s legal costs.
The Survivors Trust – an umbrella organisation in Britain for rape, sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse support organisations – welcomed Harris’ conviction but said his sentences should not be served concurrently.
‘‘Without concurrent sentences, Harris would be facing 11 years and nine months – a sentence that we feel better reflects the lifelong suffering his victims have felt and are still battling,’’ the trust said.
With Deborah Gough and AAP