'Abuse stories nearly finished me'

This week the trial of the victims of the abuse in children's homes in North Wales begins. Solicitor Peter Garsden tells Jon Robins that the trauma will be so great that lawyers need to know what they are letting themselves in for
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The Independent Online

The first trial of the victims of abuse in children's homes in North Wales begins this week, only five weeks after the publication of the report revealing the full horror of 20 years of systematic abuse of children supposedly under the care of the state. Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report, Lost in Care, made for a deeply disturbing read. The tribunal sat for 203 days, heard 159 complainants allege sexual and physical abuse in 40 children's homes and made 72 recommendations. The former High Court judge and his team called for a Children's Commissioner for Wales, children's complaints officers for every social services authority, and clearer whistle-blowing procedures.

"Harrowing" was the verdict of Alan Milburn, the health secretary. He said that the tribunal's findings revealed a "systematic failure" to care for some of the most vulnerable children in society. "It is unacceptable and must not happen again," the minister continued. For the 27 claimants who officially began their long battle for compensation at the Royal Courts of Justice this week, it is another occasion to relive their childhood pain. Barrister Lee Moore, herself a victim of abuse and co-founder of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers (ACAL), predicts that the legal action will be "absolutely dreadful" for the victims. She contends that the battlefield of the courtroom re-enacts "the dynamics of sexual of abuse".

According to Sir Ronald over half the 260 witnesses needed counselling in the North Wales inquiry. In the aftermath of Waterhouse, Moore admits to feelings of "total despair" at the lack of a political response. She says she is "ashamed to be British". "You have 650 children who have been buggered and raped and all there was was a few pages in the newspapers," she says. "[But] after a few days it had gone quiet."

As painful as the legal process is for the abused, she warns that the trauma does not necessarily stop with the client. She offers some blunt advice for those solicitors facing new clients alleging abuse. Do not take on these cases unless you understand "the client's journey", how the abuse affects them, and how it could affect you.

According to ACAL the scale of allegations is vast. They reckon that there are 80 police inquiries which cover all but one force, and one investigation alone involves allegations against 80 homes. In North Wales as many as 2,500 children passed through homes run by the Clwyd and Gwynedd authorities during the period that concerned the tribunal. The greater the press attention on child abuse, the greater the volume of allegations. Since Waterhouse hit the headlines, inquiries to ACAL have trebled.

These are not your average "slip and trip" personal injury cases, Moore warns. Instead they concern the "intentional infliction of harm" and the details of abuse "beggars belief". She believes that unprepared lawyers are bad for clients, because they run the risk of "re-traumatising" them, but they could also harm themselves. ACAL runs courses in "secondary traumatic stress" for lawyers.

Ernest Ryder QC, counsel for the North Wales Inquiry, has worked for 20 years in child-care law. He has seen lawyers lose their professional objectivity, damage their family lives and harm their mental health "much in the same way" as someone suffering post-traumatic stress. He describes the nature and the extent of the abuse in North Wales as "saddening beyond belief". "But I'm afraid that I expected everything that I found," he says.

He advises solicitors new to this area to seek out the advice of experienced practitioners. "You need to know what you're letting yourself into," he says.

"I learnt the hard way," says solicitor Peter Garsden, "and it nearly finished me off." Garsden is co-ordinating the claims against a "core" of five children's home around Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire. When he first started on these cases six years ago he admits that he had no idea what he was letting himself in for.

The solicitor launched a campaign for a public inquiry as well as leading the group action that currently comprises 300 alleged victims and 90 firms of solicitors. The pressure soon became overwhelming as he became involved in the emotionally fraught world of pressure groups, lobbied the Government furiously and wrote to 100 MPs calling for an inquiry. Ultimately the campaigners got their inquiry - but in Wales, not the North West. He now admits to "some envy" at the progress made by the Welsh inquiry.

"We could do with one here," he says. Over the last six years he has read nearly 400 accounts of abuse. He says that being exposed to this sad catalogue of misery is not like, for example, watching a sad film that leaves you wanting to cry. The effect is far more invidious. Looking back on this period, he acknowledges that the degree to which the work was effecting him, and indeed obsessing him, was not "immediately obvious". That impact was not to become clear until certain things started to happen.

In particular, he recalls delivering a speech in a committee room in the Houses of Parliament as part of the successful campaign for a register of convicted sex offenders. "I got on the soap box for the good of the cause, and lost my way at some point," he recalls. He did not break down but became "all choked up". His fellow campaigners applauded the show of emotion but he was alarmed at his own lack of self-control.

Not long after that episode the solicitor lost his temper in an interview on BBC2's Newsnight. In his view, he had been duped into participating in coverage of the North West cases that was clearly unsympathetic to his clients. He was furious and threatened to withdraw his co-operation with a Panorama investigation on the grounds that it was a "BBC programme". He admits now that his behaviour was an incredible over-reaction.

He says that the work began to "possess" him and he started thinking about it all the time. "And I do mean all the time," he adds. "When you are dealing with someone so distraught and emotionally traumatised they lean on you emotionally and they off-load all their negative energies," he says. "And you go home full of their negative energies and they go home feeling better." Unsurprisingly, the tension spilt over into his family life, putting an incredible strain on his marriage, until he eventually agreed to go into counselling. It only took him six sessions of therapy to put his life and work into some kind of perspective. Peter Garsden helped set up ACAL to prevent others going through a similar experiences.

Billhar Uppal, the court-appointed lead claimant solicitor in the North Wales inquiry, cautions against solicitors jumping on the client's crusade. He refuses to play "nursemaid" to his clients. That might sound cruel, he says but it is "a matter of survival. You start taking these clients' cases home and you are going to screw your head up pretty quickly," he says.

Uppal represents 65 clients alleging abuse in the North Wales scandal and has acted for 350 such clients since 1994. He vehemently disagrees with the ACAL approach of making a distinction between these cases from other PI claims. He believes that there is a danger that it "belittles" what the clients had gone through. But he adds that these are traumatic cases but they are not so traumatic that "you need to run out screaming". Most personal injury lawyers are "perfectly capable" of handling this work provided they respect professional boundaries, he reckons.

Lee Moore pays tribute to the lawyers acting in the cases. She no longer practises and says that "for the first time" she is seeing lawyers as an inspiration. "They have got a very valuable part to play for the people that have been abused," she says. "Nobody has ever fought for these people before and that can be challenging". But there are non-altruistic reasons as well, she believes that the fight for compensation is breaking new legal territory.

On the North Wales inquiry, she says that if the Government fails to deliver on Sir Ronald's recommendations it will be a "betrayal" of the victims.

So far the Government looks paralysed and capable only of knee-jerk reactions, she says. "So, frankly, carry on suing because if we sue everybody left right and centre maybe someone will do something. The law is a way of making the truth visible."

Contact ACAL on 01923 286 888 or e-mail leemooreco.aol.com