Early Career - Articles of Clerkship
I started my legal career at an insurance solicitors firm called A W Mawer & Co in Manchester, where I was offered what was then known as Articles between 1979 and 1981. I was very naive at that time, and did not understand the legal world. I very soon learned that hard work and grim determination were what counted if you wanted to succeed. What I wanted was thanks from an appreciative member of the public for a job well done. The firm were very understanding of my lack of application and gave me some valuable experience of the work of a Defendant Personal Injury Lawyer, which involves losing most of your cases, paying out insurance company funds, and working for large corporations.
First Solicitor's Job
When I qualified in 1981, it was a time when Britain, under Margaret Thatcher, was not the respected country it is now, and was coming out of an era of power cuts, hyper inflation, and the 3 day week of the 1970's. I thus decided to seek my fortunes abroad in Canada. I quickly learned that grass wasn't always greener on the other side of the fence, and that, despite being a beautiful country, I would rather practice in England. I thus returned and found a job working in Stockport as a general litigation solicitor doing a mixed bag of all types of contentious work.,
I cut my teeth as an advocate in the exciting world of the Magistrates Court, and finally found the type of client that I wanted to represent. It sounds churlish to say that I wanted to help the poor and need, but my role model growing up was always my father, who was bright but had never had the opportunities that I had had due to the worst features of the class system. He had qualified as a pattern maker, risen to be a teacher after the last war, and joined my mother's business as Managing Director. Business was in my family, and creating your own success was part of my DNA. First of all I had to gain some much needed experience in all areas of practice.
I also had the benefit of a private education thanks to the hard work of my parents and boarded from the age of 8 at a Prep School in Hoylake, then a Public School called Repton in Derbyshire. I never really fitted in with boys that went there who were from privileged backgrounds. The expected car for collections was a Jaguar not my father's Ford Cortina. I sound like an inverted snob but I am not, I just could not identify with their expectations of life. The point is that I found it easy to find satisfaction in helping with the problems of the poor who needed help with critical issues in their lives.
The Journey to having my own business
I worked for 2 firms in Stockport and Cheadle Hulme, where I bought a house, and thought I was settled, but I wasn't, because I always hankered after having my own business to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather, who had started a Radio Retail Shop in 1911 in Leigh Lancashire. My mother then my father gave up their jobs to run the business in preparation for my Grandfather's retirement. Birchall Brothers later moved over to Television when it came along in the 1950's.
Abney Garsden McDonald solicitors opens
I did not want to be sole Practitioner and searched for an appropriate partner who could do Conveyancing which was then the bread and butter of High Street Solicitors. I found someone to share my business in a good friend of mine called Paul McDonald. We planned to set up close to his home village of Cheadle where he had many connections. We opened our doors with practically no work in December 1985.
Amazingly clients seemed to seek us out, and we quickly paid off our overdraft of £9000. The business became a source of income and was helping local people with their many problems. I was also a regular visitor to the Magistrates Court where I learned how to become a more proficient criminal advocate.
We open our second office in 1987
I was always ambitious and wanted to expand, so we opened a second office in Poynton Cheshire where I remained until 1996 - almost 10 years later. By this time I had started doing child abuse work and needed help with the surprising amount of cases coming in as police investigations widened throughout Merseyside, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, and Lancashire.
Child Abuse Cases - the journey to Hell
One summer's day in June 1994, an old Criminal Client of mine contacted me to say that he needed to see a solicitor but didn't know why. When I heard that he was a complainant in a Police Investigation and the victim of abuse at a Children's Home in the mid 1970's, I immediately knew why. Although I was well versed in the field of Personal Injury cases, and had been qualified at that time for 12 years, it was the sort of work I had never done before.
I immediately contacted the Legal Aid Board, as it was then, to ask Frank Barnshaw, an excellent solicitor there whether there were any other cases he was aware of. He said not, but recognised the strength in working together as a group and suggested I call a meeting of other interested lawyers whose clients had been contacted by the police.
I organised a meeting at a hotel in Chester where we talked about forming a group of victims of abuse at Greystone Heath Children's Home, the locus of abuse in Warrington, Cheshire.
The Frightening Growth of Child Abuse
The police investigation uncovered disturbing statistics as it was discovered that many hundreds of boys at Greystone Heath had been abused by several residential care workers. Many of them could not face talking about the abuse. Only the brave came forward. There continued several trials of dangerous men who had ruined countless boy's lives by subjecting them to pretend love which they were sadly lacking from their own upbringing. The boys were offered treats, football kit, and other enticements and in return were expected to conduct lewd sexual acts which escalated eventually to buggery.
This one investigation quickly spread to other police forces and many children's homes such that Merseyside were investigating 87 children's homes, Manchester 66, and several also in Cheshire. It was like being on the Big Dipper as the carriage in front disappeared over the next hill with no control over how many enquiries we were getting.
I anxiously recruited staff as solicitors acting for the insurers of the Children's Homes decided to oppose all my cases and push them to trial. I remember watching the film "Erin Brockovich" at the time, and thinking how many parallels there were with my own David and Goliath story.
By 2003 we were running "Class Actions" at over 25 establishments, which were mainly Children's Homes. It was thought at the time that the abuse was limited to just children in care, whereas the information I was getting from Survivor Groups led me to believe that abuse was far more widespread, as indeed later proved to be the case.
The Fight for Legal Aid
Even though Abuse Cases were statistically successful because we only chose those likely to succeed, the Legal Services Commission, as they later entitled themselves, were under governmental pressure to cut their budget, and thus deprive us, and our clients of much needed financial support, as cases continued to fight and thus not pay either compensation or costs. I thus got on the campaigning trail for other solicitors in the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers and pushed for the sorting of funding that a Socialist Government would have given to us.
I succeeded in preventing the Government from taking away support for abuse cases in the same way that they had done to the victims of medical accidents, but didn't persuade them to increase hourly rates from 1991 levels. It was said at the time that it was more profitable to clean drains for Dynorod than advise someone as a solicitor at a Police Station on Legal Aid.
I have always worked very closely with Support Groups who support the many victims/survivors of abuse. In particular I helped set up a charity called Abuse Watch in Manchester through a former Liberal MP called Dennis Wrigley who is now sadly deceased via a charity called Maranatha in Irlam Manchester. Together we lobbied hard for better vetting of staff working with Children. This was adopted by the then Labour Government at the time, which later became known as the Disclosure and Barring Service, and still exists today. It is a fundamental safeguarding tool and pre-requisite for anyone working with children.
Following on from a case of mine that I took to the Court of Appeal called Durham County Council v Dunn, I helped set up a campaigning group called Access to Care Records Campaign Group which lobbies hard for better access to Care Records for leavers from Care
Other campaigns that I have fought include Mandatory Reporting. Please see the Campaigns Page
The Association of Child Abuse Lawyers
I quickly became aware in the early 1990’s that there was a distinct lack of knowledge of Child Abuse Law principally because no such cases had ever been brought before. So in that sense I became known as a legal pioneer. Behind the scenes it was very difficult and incredibly stressful, but exciting to be forging new precedents and ways of dealing with not only the law, but also the practicalities of dealing with mentally damaged human beings without making their plight worse.
A small group of us in late 1997 met to discuss the setting up of an Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, which came to fruition in 1998. I quickly set up a website, and helped form an Association which continues to this day. We have a training programme, a database of institutions where abuse has taken place, a legal database of useful cases and articles, and a register of suitable experts. Most importantly we have established a Code of Practise to which all members must subscribe. We also campaign regularly for changes in law and practice for the benefit of our members. I remain President of the Association.
The Pendulum Swings
As the media became increasingly pro-victim, and the "abuser lobby" became louder, so decisions in cases started to go against the victims in favour of the abuser, or rather his/her employer. At about the same time, the Home Affairs Select Committee were persuaded by the "abuser lobbyists", also known as FACT (Falsely Accused Care Teachers), to hold an Inquiry into the conduct of investigations into Children's Homes at which I was called to give evidence. To quote
It has been suggested, and we believe it to be so, that a new genre of miscarriages of justice has arisen from the over-enthusiastic pursuit of these allegations. Those who argue the case, contend that police methods of 'trawling' for information, from a wide net of former residents, produces unreliable evidence for the prosecution and, hence, unsafe convictions.
Thankfully, the Home Office dismissed the findings of the Committee, but the damage had been done, because, following the enquiry, at which the police came in for criticism, the conduct of police investigations changed so that "Trawling for Evidence", which was simply the usual conduct of looking for supportive evidence became banned, and criminal cases failed due to lack of evidence. The police thought that they were banned from "trawling".
The Jimmy Savile Effect, and Swing of the Pendulum
The Jimmy Savile scandal spans several years both before and after his death in October 2011. It caused much consternation at the BBC and within government due to the way in which he managed to elevate himself to a Knighthood, and hoodwink many in power by effortless charity raising activities. Abney Garsden were instructed by some of his victims.
Under the constant vigilance of Teresa May the public horror led to the announcement of a Public Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and a change in CPS's rules for prosecuting child abuse offences under Keir Starmer who was then head of CPS. By cleverly avoiding the use of the word trawling, Starmer managed to change policy back to what it had been before the Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry, and more complaints were prosecuted successfully.
The Awards Era
In 2010 I decide to enter an award competition, which was something I had never done before, in order to support the suppliers of my Case Management System, called Proclaim. I had spent many hours created a system to handle our Child Abuse cases and thought it might be suitable for the award "Most Innovative Use of Legal Software". I went to the glittering ceremony with my wife, and to my complete surprise, I won.
Encouraged by my success, I decided to enter more competitions. Again, I was surprised at how many we won as a firm. To be fair we were doing an unusual type of work, which was not only newsworthy, but also helped the victims of abuse by the state. Some of our clients wanted to shout about their issues from the rooftops, whilst others understandably wished to remain silent.
To read about our awards in more detail go to our awards page. In total both my team and I have won 11 awards since 2010.
The Final Years of Abney Garsden
In the final few years of Abney Garsden McDonald, I started to think of my retirement from practice. I was hoping that I would be able to appoint some partners who would buy me out. My founding partner Paul McDonald retired in 2006 leaving me as a sole Practitioner. This left me wtihout a strong counsellor, with whom I could share decisions. In order to boost the firm and help with marketing, I joined the QualitySolicitor Franchise in 2013, which boosted our marketing reach by being part of a national organisation.
Solicitors are in a similar position to other professionals in that retirement at a certain date leaves cases unfinished and a high professional indemnity premium to pay. In the world of Personal Injury, the government, through various measures, had ruined the profitability of most cases by the imposition of costs rules. The niche areas of law such as child abuse cases thus became more appealing than hitherto.
As such I sold the firm to Simpson Millar solicitors in 2016 where I remained as head of department until 2022.
Retirement? Or a move to Scott Moncrieff Solicitors
When I left Simpson Millar, I was tempted to retire, but despite my instinct to take life a bit easier, I decide to look for a new opportunity. At the age of 65 it is not easy to find employment again. I wanted to avoid the world of politics and was delighted to find an unusual type of virtual law firm in Scott Moncrieff.
I joined them in the New Year of 2023 as a Solicitor Consultant. It feels like starting all over again, and going back to 1985 when I was on the one hand excited by a new and uncertain opportunity, and on the other hand afraid how much work would come into the firm. The difference is that now I have the advantage of over 40 years experience of the law, and nearly 30 years of specialty in Child Abuse Cases.
I still have my health and energy and look forward to many years of doing what I enjoy - helping the victims of abuse become survivors, and giving them the truth, acceptance, belief and redress they deserve.