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'You learn to put your feelings to one side and get on with the job.' Nicola Davies QC is ready to tackle child abuse. By Sandy Bisp

T he health minister John Bowis could no doubt testify that Nicola Davies QC possesses a unique capacity to surprise. Her landmark report last month following an inquiry into the death of the 22-year-old Oxford untrained volunteer worker Jonathan Newby - stabbed by severely mentally ill hostel inmate John Rous - brought a demand from the silk for a meeting to discuss proposals for the overhaul of community care.

The report emphasised the need for government funding to provide training at different levels for carers plus adequate housing provision for the severely mentally ill. Three weeks after publication, following her meeting with Mr Bowis, Nicola Davies confirmed: "It was a very useful one."

The surprise element came with her steely request for a further appraisal meeting in six months' time. Mr Howis was clearly taken aback. "I think he was a little surprised but said he would be in touch," she said.

Ms Davies makes it clear she is strengthening her grip on the Newby report, a grip in no way weakened by the fact that she is soon to produce another, this time following an investigation into child abuse in children's homes in North Wales in the wake of criminal trials.

But that report will be only for the eyes of William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales. It was John Redwood, who held that office in May, who announced Nicola Davies's appointment to the current independent investigation, promising that her recommendations, if not the report, would be published.

Ms Davies, Wales's first female barrister to take silk, says: "I am quite sure the fact that I was Welsh mattered when I was approached, but this exercise in North Wales is unique. It is the first time an examination of this kind has been carried out by examination of documents and nothing else. In the Oxford inquiry, I was taking oral evidence. This time, I will advise whether there should be an inquiry and what the terms of reference should be."

The sheer weight of evidence in 16,000 documents covering a period of 20 years and involving "many, many children" means the report she anticipated completing by the end of September will now probably occupy her through October. After that, she says firmly, she intends to resume criminal practice.

A member of Gray's Inn, and a practising barrister for 19 years, most of her work in civil law has been in the area of medical tribunals and hearings, which have often involved negligence and compensation. As a result, she claims to be anaesthetised when dealing with evidence which has the ability to shock, as in the current investigation being undertaken into child abuse. "You learn to put your feelings to one side and get on with the job."

It was as junior counsel for Dr Marietta Higgs and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt during the Cleveland child abuse cases that her profile became more public, and chairing the Newby inquiry is undoubtedly a watershed for the 42-year- old with an unlikely background for someone in her fourth year as a silk.

The Llanelli-born QC happens to be state educated and, more precisely, a product of Bridgend Girls' Grammar School and Birmingham University. What's more, she detested law at university, having embraced it originally in her determination not to take up teaching, a path long regarded in Wales as the epitome of achievement for any daughter.

Hating law so much, she almost deserted to do a degree in history, but her tutor's urging to stay the course prevailed. Graduating presented another opportunity to bolt, and she applied for a management course in industry, where a perspicacious Unilever company secretary told her there was more of the lawyer in her than she cared to admit.

With that judgement, and since most of her friends were bound for London and solicitors' exams, she followed suit. But articled to a small firm, she still persisted in not enjoying the work. Put to flight yet again, she chose to be an investment analyst in the City. Eventually, having succeeded in shaking off law, she was forced to acknowledge she missed it. "What I enjoyed was going into court," she says, "and seeing advocacy at work."

Still, what appeared to be insuperable problems made her consider abrogating all claims to read for her Bar finals. The daughter of an engineer, and the first in her family to go to university, she wanted to avoid further straining the family financial resources at the time her younger brother was about to leave school for college. With her route to the Bar hardly an inside track, she pondered if the risks were worth taking in such a male-dominated public-school profession.

But the former headgirl of the local grammar told herself: "Either I give it a shot or I end up with a chip on my shoulder."

Called to the Bar in 1976, she decided to give herself five years and, to her astonishment, found time flying by. Amazingly, suddenly, she was enjoying every minute of her work, romanced by the application of law, if not the theory.

She says: "Going for silk before I was 40 became a personal thing."

The same cannot be said about her recent Assistant Recorder's application, now involving judicial pupillage. "I know others who have applied at a younger age before they got silk, but I felt now was the right time for me to apply."

Goals, she maintains, are no longer part of the picture.

"I need to continue to build up an interesting and successful practice in silk. Beyond that, I can't say I have any other ambitions. The work is tremendously exciting and I hope it continues."

Others cite her approachability, testifying to how encouraging Nicola Davies makes a point of being to younger women at the Bar. Hearing this, surprised, she feels it necessary to offer an explanation.

"A lack of confidence is responsible for able women not coming forward as men do. I know - I suffered from it myself. Men will have a go where women would hesitate to apply for silk. Encouragement is important. But I have to say it was a man who encouraged me to go forward."

Life has been sufficiently encouraging for her to buy a large and elegant 19th century house in Islington, north London, overlooking the Grand Union canal. "There is an opera singer a couple of houses along," says Ms Davies, credited herself with a good soprano voice, "and a very good pianist somewhere nearby, too. It's a lovely sound on warm evenings, particularly in what has been an exceptional year - no time to get to the opera, concerts or theatre."