Peter Garsden worked in Cheshire, in a mixed law practice. But for the last three-and-a-half years his work has been unmixed. He has become obsessed with the cases of victims of child abuse and, as Roger Dobson reports, the effect on his life has been shattering.

It was just before midday on a Tuesday morning in May when Peter Garsden answered a telephone call that was to change his life. At the time he was a partner in a Cheshire firm of solicitors specialising in personal injury, as well as the usual small town mix of cases and clients.

But the 32-year-old man on the other end of the telephone had an altogether different kind of story. He was a sexual abuse victim and was the first of more than 200 men and women who were to allege they had been abused when they were in children's homes in the North-west of England.

Three years on from that first phone call, Peter Garsden's life has been turned inside out. He has become obsessed with fighting for compensation for the 220 men and women whose vivid descriptions of the appalling abuse they suffered haunt him every day.

And the price of his obsession has been high. His marriage is in difficulties, relationships with his two young daughters have changed, he suffers with depression, has sleeping problems and, on one occasion, broke down while making a speech about abuse to MPs.

Peter Garsden's experiences highlight the emotional strain faced by lawyers dealing with the rising tide of child abuse cases. Unlike victims, perpetrators, policemen and social workers, lawyers do not have access to counselling to help them cope.

Back in that spring of 1994, Mr Garsden appeared to have everything going for him. He was 37 and a partner in the firm of Abney Garsden McDonald which he had co-founded nine years earlier. He had a pounds 200,000 house in Macclesfield, and was happily married with two young girls, Vanessa and Alexandra.

"Life was pretty good. The client who rang me that morning had been interviewed by the police as part of the North-west child abuse inquiry, and they had suggested he talk to a solicitor. That was my first contact with an abuse victim," he said.

That inquiry by Cheshire Police was to become Britain's biggest and longest investigation into child abuse in children's homes with more than 2,000 former residents traced.

"The man told me that he had been abused sexually for three years while at the children's home by a care worker. He found it very embarrassing, and at that time, I did too."

It was some months later, when he became the lead solicitor in the group of lawyers representing around 220 victims of abuse, that the pressures began to mount when he read the statements of all the victims.

"As a professional you try to remain detached, but it is difficult with these cases. The psychological reports were the worst. It was distressing to read how a man could appear to be fine on the surface but underneath be a complete wreck with horrific symptoms of suicidal thoughts, self- mutilation, and all the other trappings of a legacy of years of abuse.

"Everything I read appalled me. At one of the homes, there was an allegation of physical torture where a care worker had carved their name into the back of a young boy. How evil can people be? "Then there were the endless descriptions of the most horrific sexual abuse. One boy, who is now a practising homosexual, was assaulted at a very young age by a teacher who had venereal disease.

"After he buggered the boy, the youngster, who was very young at the time, was taken to hospital. His anus was sewn up where it had been ripped and, unbelievably, he was sent back to the home where he had been abused. The sheer horror and brutality of that boy's life upset me enormously.

"It became a struggle to remain completely objective. I became involved with pressure groups made up of people with causes to fight for, and their passion rubbed off on me: I became a campaigner."

He describes how he first realised he had become emotionally involved when he went with pressure groups to lobby MPs at the House of Commons seeking heavier sentences for abusers.

"I was making a prepared speech in one of the rooms and I had got to the part where I was describing the symptoms of victims when I just seized up.

"To me the most upsetting symptom is the man who has been abused, who knows that some victims become abusers, and who will not go near his own children for fear he may abuse them himself. As a father I find that very upsetting and I had got to that point in my speech when I was overcome with emotion and had to stop in mid-sentence.

"I then had to stand back and take stock. I used to be the sort of person who could shut the door on a Friday night and put the office to bed until Monday morning. I was not a person who let things get to him, but this case has taken over my life.

"My marriage has gone through trials and tribulations. My wife complains I work too much and although I don't drink very much, last year I went through a period when I was drinking more than normal. Janet and I have also started going to Relate. I feel the case has taken so much out of me I have neglected my family.

"I look at my own children in a different light. What I have read and heard over the last three years colours the relationship. When you play with them there is a flash in your mind and you remember what happened to children just like yours but who had the misfortune to be in a children's home."

Earlier this year his wife, Janet, who has been going to Relate for two months with her husband, sold her own business in an attempt to solve the problems in the relationship.

She says that her husband has changed considerably in the last three years: "He used to come in at six o'clock. We all ate together and he'd tell funny stories about what had happened in court or the office that day. When he got involved in this case he came home later and later, and when he did arrive he would either fall asleep or carry on working on the computer he had installed at home with a link to the office files.

"I tried to change to fit in with him. I sold my design business so that if he couldn't be there for the children, at least I was. Eventually I suggested we go to Relate, but he said there was nothing wrong.

"It was only when I told him that I was thinking of leaving that he agreed to go to Relate. We have had six sessions and I think we do communicate more. I was resentful that he was using up all the energy he had on other people and not on the family, but at the same time I am really very proud of what he is doing."

He accepts that he has changed and that his health has suffered too: "I get depressed and I am prone to lethargy. Apart from the case, it is a real effort to do anything else.

"There is no doubt it has changed me. I don't do anything but abuse cases now, and if a new victim rings up, no matter how busy I am I will always spend as long as they want listening and talking because I now know how important it is to them and what an effort they have made to get that far."

Although many lawyers, all too aware of the emotional risks involved, will avoid child abuse cases, Peter Garsden is adamant he made the right decision, despite the toll on his personal life.

"I've never thought of giving it up, it is something I feel I have to do. People have a perception of lawyers as being only in it for the money, but we are not and we are affected by what we do just like anyone else.

"We have several years to go on this case yet, but we'll get there and the reward will be when we finally get the justice these young people deserve from a system that let them down so badly and so horrifically when they were children."