As the NSPCC’s head of legal, Samina Afzal says it’s vital that the charity be equipped to fight its corner where necessary.
The National Society for the Prevention of ;Cruelty ;to Children (NSPCC) has been in the business of protecting vulnerable children for more than a century.
Originally set up to prevent child abuse in families, the society now operates a much larger mandate as one of the world’s biggest children’s charities, filling a hole left in the UK’s social service network.
Since head of legal Samina Afzal started at the charity a lot has changed – not least the operating revenue, which now stands at £147m, up from £50m in 2001. Around 80 per cent of the money raised comes from donations, with the remainder from Government aid.
When Afzal joined in 2001, legal advice was administered throughout the charity’s 180 sites on an ad hoc basis. Now centralised, the six-strong team gets involved in all deals and acts as any other legal department in a large corporation would.
The appointment of Andrew Flanagan, the former boss of media group SMG, as the new chief executive from 5 January this year is likely to give the charity a more corporate edge. Given the types of projects the legal team works on, having a director with experience of hard-nosed negotiation will be a blessing.
Aside from its frontline services for children, the charity has a policy department that consults on child protection schemes and also trains workers who have contact with children. In January this year, the NSPCC won a tender to set up and co-manage the Government’s National Safeguarding Unit for the Third Sector, which aims to put effective safeguards in place to prevent the abuse of children and young people. The legal team was engaged in every aspect of the tender, illustrating the breadth of work Afzal and her department have to deal with.
“I can’t think of any two days that are the same,” she says. “It’s extremely important in my role to have a broad knowledge of many aspects of law. For instance, we have a specialist child protection lawyer but when she’s away I have to use the experience that I’ve picked up from working here.”
The NSPCC’s role as a knowledge base for child protection cannot be understated. It has a royal charter, but chooses not to use this in its name to avoid confusion with the likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Royal National Lifeboat Institute. And it is the only UK charity with statutory powers to protect children at risk, having been authorised under the Children Act 1989 to apply for care and supervision orders in its own right.
Other issues faced by Afzal have included challenging ITV over a programme that showed children being hit by adults, the merger with ChildLine (itself a massive telecommunications project costing £12m a year to run), inquiries from the investigation into abuse at the Haut de la Garenne children’s home in Jersey and assisting the Victoria Climbie Inquiry.
“We often deal with complex agreements because we have an unusual ‘customer’, for want of a better term,” explains Afzal. “We have finite resources and negotiations can be very tough. The leverage from being a charity can be useful, but it can also be a disadvantage. People would be surprised at some of the poorly drafted contracts we receive. Some suppliers don’t bank on us being there at all, let alone being able to negotiate.”
Afzal is also critical of the “significant” number of Government and local authority contracts containing onerous terms and liability clauses that pass her desk. External help with some of the more complex commercial contracts that require specialist advice comes from a small number of firms, including Weil Gotshal & Manges, which Afzal praises for its speedy response and quality of advice. But that there are only two UK firms that do pro bono work for the charity is a source of concern, she adds.
“We’ve found that many UK law firms are only interested either in work that’s glamorous, such as human rights, or work that will take the least amount of their time,” says Afzal. “I don’t get an active approach from UK law firms. The biggest hurdle I face is that I need work turned around quickly like anyone else, but many don’t appreciate it.”
US firms, on the other hand, do work quickly or find other lawyers who can help if they are too busy, Afzal adds – although she admits that in some cases she has asked for a donation rather than risk receiving poor pro bono assistance.
Afzal is full of fighting spirit for the work her team performs for the charity. “This job gives us a lot of satisfaction and contrary to the perception some private practice lawyers have towards in-house, especially charity organisations, we actually have very challenging legal dilemmas that are worthy of any lawyer’s time. And we get to see it being employed,” she adds.
Name: Samina Afzal
Organisation: National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)
Sector: Third sector/charity
Position: Head of legal
Reporting to: Finance and corporate services director Ian Chivers
Total number of employees: 2,200
Total legal capacity: Six
Main external law firms: Hempsons Solicitors, Simmons & Simmons, Weil Gotshal & Manges
Total legal spend: N/a (pro bono only)
Samina Afzal’s CV
1987-90: LLB, University of London
1990-91: Law, College Of Law, Chester
1992-94: Trainee, Hamlin Slowe
1995-97: Assistant solicitor, Bell Lax Solicitors
1997-98 In-house counsel, Haringey Council
1998-2000: In-house lawyer, Warden Housing Association
2001-present: Head of legal, NSPCC