At the recent Law Society Excellence Awards, which recognise the most outstanding legal practitioners in their field, child abuse lawyer Peter Garsden was awarded Solicitor of the Year for his work representing the victims of child abuse since 1994.
Peter took on his first claim in 1994 on behalf of an adult who, decades earlier, had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of staff at a children’s home in Manchester. That first case escalated until it involved more than 800 claimants. It lasted almost 15 years and culminated in £5m damages for the victims. It is what prompted Peter to set up a child abuse department in his sole practitioner firm, what was then called Abney Garsden McDonald. Today the firm who joined the QualitySolicitors network boasts the longest established department in the country.
In an interview with Jonathan Rayner of the Law Society Gazette, Peter talks of the highs and lows of his career to date and gives some insight in to what it’s like to work as a solicitor representing victims of abuse.
Best job in the world
Peter told the Gazette how he believes his is the ‘best job in the world’ even though some may find that surprising. He explained ‘this line of work is more of a calling than a profession. It is what idealistic law students dream of qualifying to become. You need passion, legal skill and the tenacity to win at all costs. The legal cards are stacked against you, but with hard work, determination and enthusiasm you can win the day. You have the moral high ground on your side, but you still need something beyond the legal facts of the case. You need dedication, passion, a fighting spirit, the right psychological skills and also the mental resilience to keep going.’
Peter explained that being involved in this kind of work, dealing with emotionally damaged victims, has sometimes taken its toll. He said how in 1998, a few years into his first child abuse case, it was ‘nearly the end of me’. He had become obsessive about the case, arriving at work around five or six o’clock each morning and taking work home in the evening. Admitting to reaching a crisis point and neglecting his family Peter explained that the firm at that time didn’t have the resources or income and he was doing the work by himself. He learnt to draw a distinction between being a lawyer and a counsellor and adapted his behaviour learning how best to serve the victim he was representing.
In the early years the odds were stacked against Peter and he admits to the Gazette that it ‘tested every sinew of my legal body’. He found himself with a handful of other lawyers plotting how to deal with abuse cases from the bottom up. Peter explained that there were no precedents to rely upon, no literature on the subject, and no acknowledged experts in the field. Even barristers told him he had ‘no hope in hell of succeeding. Thankfully they were proven wrong and Peter and other lawyers persevered, in the meantime establishing The Association of Child Abuse Lawyers (ACAL) in late 1997. ACAL was an organisation set up for the benefit of the victims. Lawyers, experts and other professionals involved in the field of obtaining compensation for the physical, sexual or emotional abuse of children and adults abused in childhood.
To read the full interview in the Law Society Gazette click here.