Children’s champ

The NSPCC’s Barbara Esam’s remit of fighting for youngsters who fall foul of the law has helped keep her in the UK for twenty seven years longer than intended. Brendan Malkin reports

Barbara Esam’s role is not that of your average in-house lawyer. She would feature just as well in ‘campaigning people’ stories in The Guardian as she does between the covers of The Lawyer. Also, lawyers in the UK tend not to apologise for forgetting a detail or for having a bad memory for dates. But one who does is Minnesota-born Esam, who arrived in the UK in 1975 for a year’s stay, but has remained ever since.

All this goes with her territory: representing the interests of children who, one way or another, enter our criminal justice system. She is the one-lawyer department at the NSPCC’s elaborately titled Child Protection Awareness Group Public Policy Department, and her days are filled not doing lawyering in anything like the conventional sense, but predominantly lobbying the judiciary, lawyers’ representative bodies, non-governmental organisations and government departments to assist with NSPCC projects. These essentially involve repairing fault lines in the UK system’s handling of children who enter the criminal justice system.

It is not a job for the faint hearted and to be effective in her work Esam has to foster a genuine concern for children’s welfare. When she joined the department nine years ago, she had behind her six years of related experience as assistant director of legal services, combined with heading up the social services legal department, at Southwark Borough Council. Prior to that she was in private practice, working for legal aid firms.

When she applied for the NSPCC job, her employers were looking for someone who could handle the grave and enormous role of improving the criminal justice system for children. With expectations running high, at her interview Esam had to present a commentary on the Criminal Justice Act 1991 that matched the NSPCC’s concerns for its review in relation to its impact on children. Ever since, Esam has been the sole lawyer in her department, and every year she places a bid for cash for her legal department out of the NSPCC’s justice for children campaign. She is usually thinking about projects for which she has neither the time nor the money to put into effect.

Despite her even tone, Esam packs a punch when she explains her current project, aimed at improving access to evidence to enable those who batter or kill children to have proper sentences meted out to them. Esam argues that the courts are currently hamstrung by a lack of evidence, which often means they cannot decide who precisely carried out the offence. As a consequence, offenders, rather than being sentenced for manslaughter or murder, are often found guilty of the far lesser offence of neglect.

The law that relates to this is the Children Act 1989, which came into force 11 years ago and which has been the subject of an NSPCC review. The review was Esam’s idea. “I started off without much help,” she recalls. “I held a seminar in July 2000 and I didn’t think people would come up with much; but enough did, which made me think it was worthwhile pursuing,” she says.

The upshot has been momentous, considering that it has arisen largely out of one person’s efforts. A working party has been set up, its members drawn from representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Law Commission, a silk, a paediatric forensic scientist, an assistant director of social services, a police chief constable and a law professor from Cambridge University. The group’s findings, based on questionnaires sent to everyone affected by the Children Act, including children, will be revealed at a conference at Cambridge University’s law faculty in November.

Attracting such high-calibre people to projects is the centrepiece of Esam’s daily grind and the key to her success. As she puts it: “It’s always better for children if there’s already agreement thrashed out at steering groups.” But it takes shrewdness on Esam’s part. She has to contact the right people in the appropriate departments and get them on her side by treating them with respect, “so they feel valued”. This somewhat contradicts the traditional image of a struggling, thrusting lobbyist seeking to change the law.

Cashflow is another problem and Esam cannot rely solely on NSPCC funding; so once again her lobbying skills come to the fore. When the Criminal Justice Act entered her radar as being ripe for reform, she teamed up with ChildLine, and having sought the views of social services departments (thanks to old contacts in this sector), police and health and psychiatric services, she helped to write a report – unpublished as of yet – on the nature and problems relating to children giving evidence in criminal cases. Two other reports, based on information from the judiciary and children, have also been compiled. These reports will be merged into one and presented to the Home Office for inspection and a possible basis for review of the Criminal Justice Act.

This follows production of an NSPCC young witness pack, entitled ‘Giving evidence – what’s it really like?’, which received approval from several legal services departments, police, the CPS and the Department of Health. Esam says they were all helpful in providing funding and “in getting the information we needed to get it right”; although she accredits particular importance to the opinions of judges in accruing knowledge of the system at the coal face. The pack, which is made for children, was first produced in 1995 and then revised for a 1998 version. A video on the same subject called ‘Case for Balance’ for judges and lawyers is due to be released later this year. Esam’s lobbying powers across government helped this project, which was initiated by the Attorney General and the Bar Council.

Esam also recently set up a steering group with representatives of four government departments and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) to produce an information pack for young defendants. She regards this spread of information as vital for the system to function, particularly when youngsters remain largely ignorant of procedures after they are arrested. “It’s down to barristers and lawyers to give them this information, but they’re often too busy. Also, lawyers don’t get paid for providing this information and kids need to get something more than just a booklet,” says Esam.

Esam does not rely on external legal assistance to help her in such projects, although she says: “I have a group of people who are helpful.” (Which is code for her consolidation of informal contacts.) Other lawyers at the NSPCC work in a jobshare and deal with the charity’s business side, such as charity law and conveyancing.

With more support, Esam could investigate other matters. Her current gripe is her belief that some of the awards by the Criminal Compensation Injuries Board to adults abused during their childhood have been “unfair”. She also wants to find ways of obtaining more evidence from young witnesses. But for now she makes use of whatever resources
she can get her hands on.
Barbara Esam
In-House Lawyer
The NSPCC’s Child Protection Awareness Group Public Policy Department

Organisation The NSPCC Child Protection Awareness Group Public Policy Department
Sector Charity
Employees 1,700
Legal capability One
In-house lawyer Barbara Esam
Reporting to Director of public policy Phillip Noyes
Budget Approximately £95,000pa