Look out, hairdressers from hell: Brigitte Goff's bad hair day lasted six months after she was given a nuclear perm. Now she rides out against hair salon cowboys. Martin Whittaker reports

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Brigitte Goff, a solicitor, admits that she never really liked confrontations outside her job. At work she always relished a clash with the opposition on a client's behalf. But in her personal life she wasn't one to stand up and make a fuss.

Then two years ago she went into a hairdressing salon for a pounds 34 perm. She emerged with hair like candy floss, which soon began falling out in great tufts. After an unapologetic response from the salon and months of distress, the lawyer in her took over. She sued, fought her own case and last week won undisclosed damages.

'I was a victim just like my clients,' she says. 'For the first time I was able to appreciate how they felt.'

The case also influenced the course of Ms Goff's career. Now she is a specialist in hair damage cases, taking up cudgels for both women and men against one of society's hidden menaces - the cowboy hairdresser.

Ms Goff, 34, is a former barrister. She fights personal injury disputes for the Birmingham law firm Williamson & Soden, and this year became a member of the Personal Injuries Panel in recognition of her specialist knowledge.

Her small office is littered with case files. Inside are photographs of atrocities committed by hair stylists and plastic bags containing samples of damaged hair and pieces of scalp as evidence. Ms Goff estimates that hair damage cases now make up a quarter of her work. And the amount is growing as other lawyers seek her advice.

She had just joined the firm when she went for a perm in February 1992. Her normally long, dark brown hair already had blonde highlights, and she wanted a demi-wave.

'I had the perm, I had my hair styled, and it looked lovely. Then within a few hours my hairstyle dropped. It was completely frizzy and stuck out from my head. Imagine my head to be part of a triangle, my shoulders being the base, then you've got my hairstyle.

'What I didn't know then was that they didn't carry out a pre-treatment test where they test a snip of your hair in the perm solution to see how it reacts. I didn't know this was a recommended practice.

'My hair had been over-processed. If they'd tested it they would have realised it was far too dry to take further treatment.'

Brigitte went back to the salon. The stylist admitted her hair was damaged and gave her a conditioner in a bid to repair it. It didn't work. 'It was awful and getting worse,' she recalls. 'It was now breaking off in great clumps. If you so much as touched the hair it would snap off.

'It was so embarrassing in my new job. Imagine it: professional woman comes to firm, wants to make an impression and there's this hair.

'I became very depressed. I'd always worn make-up, but I stopped. I dressed down. I lost interest in my home. I just wanted to hide. I refused to look in mirrors. I wouldn't go out. This lasted about three months.

'The other side of me, the rational professional lawyer, was saying 'Come on, Brigitte, pull yourself together. This only happens to other people.' Then the next minute I was bursting into tears. I think I'm a fairly hard person. I don't weep easily. That was the most scary thing of all.

'I didn't know what depression was until this hit me. It's a confidence thing. You go out and you think everybody's looking at your hair. It's like having an unsightly scar on your face. People may not actually notice, but you think they're looking.

'It affected my relationship with my husband. I distanced myself from him because I didn't feel I was attractive any more. It's terribly frustrating for the partner - there's nothing they can say or do that helps.'

When the conditioner she'd been given didn't work, Brigitte returned to the salon and spoke to the manageress. 'At that stage I wasn't being the personal injury lawyer. I just wanted to know what was wrong with my hair. I trusted them to be able to put it right.

'The manageress acknowledged that my hair was damaged. I asked her what she was going to do about it. She said all they could do was condition and cut it until it grew back to its length. I asked her who would pay for that. She said: 'You.' That was when I started becoming a little incensed.

'I asked for a refund and she said no - they didn't offer refunds. She was arrogant and dismissive. My husband told me 'Look, if you had a client in your situation, what would you advise?' I said if they couldn't resolve it, they should sue.'

It took intensive conditioning treatment to put Brigitte's hair right. She had to sit in another salon for four or five hours at a time, twice a week, for three months, then once a week for a further three before they could cut away the damaged hair.

Meanwhile, she needed an expert witness to fight her case. She was put in touch with Carol Walker, a trichologist (an expert in the science of hair) from Wolverhampton.

Brigitte began to realise there were many cases far worse than hers, but not many lawyers who knew about the subject. Some solicitors were undervaluing the amount of damages their clients might have won.

'Carol felt that as I'd been a victim, I could have more sympathy than most with what the clients went through. She told me of some of her cases, and I was horrified. She told me there are hairdressers who are unqualified, but still practise. I couldn't believe it - I'm a professional woman, I've got to take professional exams, yet they don't have to. They can open up a salon and start working with chemicals they know nothing about. That really shocked me.'

So Brigitte began taking on compensation cases, relying on Carol Walker as her expert. In one case, a woman was driven to the brink of suicide after chemical treatment went wrong. In another, a young West Indian woman was treated with relaxer - the opposite of a perm, to straighten her curly hair. It made her eyes, forehead and neck swell, covered her scalp with weeping sores, and after a week she was completely bald.

In a third, a woman in her early twenties suffered a large bald patch from front to back of her head after her hair was over-processed and the rollers wound too tight.

Brigitte's clients range from children to people in their late fifties. A few are men, but they tend to be more embarrassed about coming forward. Compensation payouts vary from hundreds of pounds to several thousand depending on circumstances. So far none of Brigitte Goff's claims have exceeded pounds 5,000.

She cites some corking excuses from rogue stylists. 'One client was told her child must have gone home and cut her own hair. Another was accused of going home and using alternative chemicals on her hair. I've even heard of a client's diet being blamed. It's always the consumer's fault, never the hairstylist's.

'If somebody goes back to complain, what they mustn't allow the hairdresser to do is cut their hair. Once their hair is cut, the evidence is gone. I always tell my clients to keep the hair that comes out in your brush, and if it is cut make sure it's put in a bag and sealed with the name and address of the stylist. At least then the trichologist can analyse the hair.'

Carol Walker is one of only 11 registered trichologists in the country who involve themselves in litigation. She teaches hairdressing and gives expert reports on hair damage cases. Although a minority of hairdressers are not properly trained, she says the damage they can cause is enormous. There is a professional body - the Hairdressing Council - but hairdressers don't have to be registered. Anyone can set up a salon.

'If you pay a lot of money, you expect good service,' says Carol. 'You expect the person who's cutting your hair to be competent.

'And there should be proper registration - somebody should definitely be monitoring these salons. I think, depending on the severity of injuries, some salons should be shut down. That's how strongly I feel about it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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