Child minders

The NSPCC’s power to take action puts it at the forefront of child protection. This is not something that the charity’s lawyers take lightly. Joanne Harris reports

Among the hundreds of children’s charities operating in the UK today, the NSPCC holds a unique position. As the only children’s charity with statutory powers that enable it to take action safeguarding children at risk, the NSPCC is able to effect real change – a responsibility that the charity’s two chief lawyers take very seriously.

The NSPCC effectively has two legal teams. The first, headed by Samina Afzal, deals with the charity’s day-to-day legal functions and also has company secretarial responsibilities. Operating separately is Barbara Esam, who has been dealing with NSPCC policy for 13 years. Esam’s role is focused solely on issues of policy concerning the way the UK legal system treats children. She works alone, but has plenty of back-up from the rest of the charity.

Esam and Afzal work in parallel, and on a daily basis Azfal’s remit is broadly commercial. She and her team look after all areas of law except for employment issues. There is a lot of IT contract drafting to be done, as well as handling minor disputes over internet domain names and trademarks.

Simmons & Simmons partner Adrian Smith is one of Afzal’s closest external contacts. Like all of the NSPCC’s external advisers, Simmons does not make financial concessions for its charitable status – except, says Afzal, “they do allow us to pick the phone up and talk to them without charge”.

Another common adviser is Masons (now Pinsent Masons), which has been working with the NSPCC since before the merger on its IT joint venture with the Children’s Society. The venture, launched in January, saw the establishment of a company called Charityshare and the merger of all the charities’ operating services. “I did most of the legal advice with that,” Afzal says. “That was quite exciting for us, because it’s the first to happen in the charity sector.”

Other law firms used by the NSPCC include Hempsons, a longstanding adviser for charity law, Olswang for specialist commercial advice and Peterborough firm Adrian Christmas & Co for property work.

Reputation and expertise are Afzal’s main criteria for picking her advisers; but, she adds, “sometimes it’s nice to have a big name behind you”.

Legal knowledge is not the be-all and end-all, though. As Afzal says: “Anyone who makes an effort to put something back into the community is a bonus for us. A lot of lawyers are quite receptive.”

Working for the community occupies most of her colleague Esam’s time. “My job,” she explains, “is looking at the way children get treated in the courts.”

Over the past year, Esam’s major project has been producing a report entitled ‘In Their Own Words’. This pulls together testimonies gathered from 50 young people, who have been witnesses in criminal proceedings, about the way they were treated.

“There have been lots of changes to improve the way children can give evidence, so much so that everyone seemed to think it was done and dusted and that it was all right,” says Esam. In fact, she believes the opposite is true and that the implementation of legislation designed to help young witnesses has been “patchy”.

The report shows that many children giving evidence feel intimidated and scared by the process, by seeing the defendant or by being cross-examined. There are significant delays, with an average wait of 11 months before the case comes to trial.

Esam is critical of the system. “These are vulnerable kids who’ve been put through horrible experiences,” she says. “We know lawyers have got to do their job and cross-examine in a robust way, but this is often really stacked against children.”

Happily, the report has been well received and well supported (the Deputy Chief Justice, Lord Justice Judge, wrote its foreword) and Esam is hopeful about future change.

Meanwhile, the two lawyers are turning their minds to other things. Disclosure and data protection are issues for both lawyers. The NSPCC has an extensive database of supporters and also a database of children it supports.

Esam says: “There are a lot of ‘fishing expeditions’ that go on – irrelevant evidence is used against the child in an unfair way.”

“We’re looking at how we can deal with that better,” adds Afzal, explaining that civil family cases cause the NSPCC the most issues with disclosure of confidential information.

Afzal and Esam both say that they find their work immensely fulfilling and relish the challenges that face them on a daily basis.

“Sometimes things just hit you really hard,” admits Esam, saying she wonders how some of the things she deals with can still be happening in today’s modern world. “But you have to have the long view in mind. There have been huge improvements.”

“There’s always something there to motivate you and keep you going,” Afzal agrees.

One of the biggest problems for Afzal is the lack of time and the complexity of some of the issues she comes up against. The team operates on a shoestring budget of just £15,000 a year – offers of pro bono help for work such as drafting contracts, as well as for more specialist areas such as media and defamation law, are always helpful.

Afzal concludes: “I encourage all lawyers to sign up to a monthly direct debit, if nothing else.”
Samina Afzal
Head of legal

Organisation NSPCC
Sector Charity
Turnover £104.9m
Employees 1,800
Legal capability Seven (two lawyers, one paralegal, two specialists and one support assistant)
Head of legal Samina Afzal
Reporting to John Graham, finance director
Main law firms Adrian Christmas & Co, Hempsons, Olswang, Pinsent Masons and Simmons & Simmons