Guardian angel

Harrowing though her work must be, The Lawyer/Unicef Child Rights Lawyer of the Year Pat Monro still manages to keep smiling. Jennifer Currie reports

Pat Monro has a a tendency to smile as she speaks. It’s not an unpleasant habit, but it is still unusual, especially considering that much of what she has to talk about relates to child abuse or the breakdown of family units. It is nonetheless entirely appropriate that Monro, as a leading child rights lawyer, should have this idiosyncrasy, given the fact that her clients – children and young people – will be much more likely to respond to a smiling lawyer than a stern-faced one.

Monro, who has just been named as the The Lawyer/Unicef UK’s Child Rights Lawyer of the Year, agrees that there is not always a lot to smile about in her line of work. “The only time when you can really smile at the end of a children’s case is, I suppose, where there has been an adoption application and the child, who has a very distressing background, is placed with a family and you believe it is going to be successful and that they will have a bright future together. But the majority of the cases are very distressing and sad, because a child has been abused, neglected, uncared for or abandoned,” says Monro, who has been known to take evicted and homeless clients home with her “as part of the service”.

Monro first started working with children and women in the mid-1970s, during her time at the newly-established Camden Law Centre. After the birth of her first child in 1976, Pat McBain, as she was then known, joined a fledgling children’s rights firm in south London, which had just been established by Clyde & Co consultant Michael Wilford.

“A number of people thought I was mad, because how could you run a firm that just acted for children? They thought it was ridiculous,” Monro says. “I went to the firm and in the first few weeks we only had one referral so I began to wonder if everyone else was right and I was wrong. But then, of course, it became terribly fashionable to act for children and because parents who had not been able to get public funding in the past now could, there was suddenly a lot more work around.”

From the very beginning, Wilford McBain’s bread and butter was a mixture of public and private work with children and their parents or guardians.

Monro says: “During the Kosovan war, we started to work for a lot of unaccompanied minors, mainly Kosovan Albanians. Soon our offices began to feel a bit like a law centre as we had loads of young people and their families coming in. It was fascinating and completely different because it showed us a totally new side to working with young people.”

After 24 years, Monro left the south London practice because she became “tired of running a legal aid firm”. Not that she has stopped doing legal aid work, it’s just that now, as a consultant to Darlington & Parkinson in west London, she doesn’t have any administrative or managerial duties. “I just do my work and rush away and I don’t have to worry when the telephone system breaks down,” she says with a laugh. “But I’m still doing publicly funded work because it is what I believe in.”

In addition to her consultancy work, her role as adviser to a local authority adoption panel and her positions on the committees of both the Law Society’s family group and the Association of Lawyers for Children, Monro also finds time to sit as a part-time immigration adjudicator in north London.

“It is extremely fascinating, and a cause of anxiety,” she says. “If you make the wrong decision and a person is not allowed to appeal, then they will return to a country where they may be tortured or killed.”

Although difficult decisions often have to be made – statistics show that the majority of people are not allowed to take their appeals to a higher court – Monro is doggedly determined in pursuit of her cause.

“I think if anyone working in this field remains completely untouched by it then they shouldn’t really be doing it. You need to be touched by it, but not to the extent where you can’t exercise a professional judgement. It’s not a very easy thing to do.”

Playing the flute in a number of orchestras helps Monro to unwind at the end of another long day in court, because “you have to look at the dots and concentrate and can’t think about your work. It’s cheaper than paying for therapy,” she says.

But joking aside, Monro admits that working in such a distressing area does take its toll and advises workers to “think about how they are caring for themselves”. She adds: “Otherwise there is a real danger that people will burn out, or will be so affected by their work that they can’t get it out of their heads. It’s necessary to look at the kind of support that’s in place to stop yourself from thinking about work too much.”

Behind the smile and turquoise fingernails is a formidable person you would definitely want to have on your side. Having battled for children’s rights for 30 years, Monro knows the area inside out and is not about to settle for any half-baked measures from the current government.

One of her greatest concerns is the underfunding of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), which was established on 1 April 2001 to provide advice to the courts on the wellbeing of children and families.

While Monro agrees that the agency was a good idea, she says poor funding and a lack of communication meant it “got off to an appalling start” and has not improved since. As a result, many of the guardians who work in tandem with solicitors to care for children’s welfare during public court proceedings have left the scheme, leading to chronic shortages in certain parts of the country.

Now Monro is worried that the system of representation will slip back to the way it was in the 1970s, when children’s rights were not taken into account in the court room. “I feel deeply saddened by the failure of this government to recognise the real stride forward we’ve made over the past 30 years. I don’t understand why there now appears to be a lack of recognition of how much we’ve achieved and why it’s so important that we not only continue with the representation, but extend it to children in private law proceedings as well,” she says.

“It’s short sighted not to properly fund a service that has been set up to represent the welfare of children and is expected to do a large number of things, but is quite unable to do any of them,” she adds. “We thought we had done it all and in fact we’d started to concentrate on other things, such as improving the representation or developing a protocol between solicitors and guardians, but in some ways we feel like we have to start all over again, which is very sad.”

It is clear that Monro is someone who is never sad for long – she even manages to laugh while her photograph is taken, although she is clearly not too happy about it – and this strong, positive outlook must have an impact on her work. “I suppose after thirty years I still feel really passionate about a child’s right to be heard in whatever proceedings they’re involved in, or when any decisions are taken about them,” she says. “And I’ve every intention of continuing to fight for the way I believe children should be represented while I still have the energy.”

Pat Monro
Consultant and Child Rights Lawyer of the year
Darlington & Parkinson