Q: You’ve recently featured prominently on TV, radio and in national press regarding your proposed action for victims of grooming by Asian men in Rochdale. On what basis are you intending to pursue action and who might you take action against?
A: We are in the early stages of the case but based on the evidence so far we are looking at legal action against social services. The central complaint is the failure by social services to intervene effectively or at all to protect vulnerable girls who were trapped in a situation of violence and fear.
Q: The victims of abuse in these cases are teenage girls, whereas the majority of your cases against the Catholic Church, for which you are noted, are on behalf of children who were abused when younger. Are there difficulties pursuing actions when the victims are older?
A: The issue is whether there has been negligence by the organisation in failing to intervene and whether that has caused harm. Abuse is abuse and rape is rape and should be treated as such irrespective of the victim’s age. Failures cannot be excused on the basis that these girls were in their teens. They were trapped in a cycle of violent sexual assaults and abuse and needed the support of police and social services to get out of it.
Q: Do you think more similar actions like the Rochdale cases will surface over the coming months?
A: Yes; sadly, street grooming and exploitation is a serious problem in many parts of the UK and it seems likely that the failure to tackle these issues properly occurred not only in Rochdale, but elsewhere too. The country is only now waking up to this scandal but police, social workers and others who work with vulnerable teenagers have known about it for many years.
Q: You have recently spoken out about abuse in Muslim faith schools and the fact that many victims are frightened of speaking out because of pressure from within family members and from within the community. Do you think this is a major problem and how can solicitors like you help?
A: With abuse in Muslim institutions we are in the position now that we were in 20 years ago with the Catholic Church -i.e., victims were scared to speak out, fearful of the power of the institution and authority figures in the community. The dam will break, but it may take some years yet. Good lawyers can embolden victims to speak out by guiding and supporting them through the legal process with skill and empathy.
Q: As well as being one the UK’s foremost solicitors in the field of abuse, you are also head of Pannone’s Serious Injury Division and you also sit on the firm’s management Board. How do you balance your caseload and management role?
A: By working hard but also, by having around me a really exceptional team of very able and dedicated partners and younger lawyers who are passionate about their clients and determined to use the law to help the most vulnerable in society. The legal profession sometimes gets a bad press but the quality and commitment of the people we have at Pannone makes me very proud.
Q: The legal landscape is shifting so what do you think will be the biggest challenges/ opportunities for Pannone over the next couple of years?
A: Jackson and other changes in the legal marketplace present a raft of challenges to traditional ways of doing law. Whilst I object to some aspects of the Jackson reforms I recognise their inevitability. All lawyers need to strive to improve process efficiency and use of IT as we face challenges like costs budgeting. But whatever the precise shape of the litigation process, there will always be a need for vulnerable people to have the best possible legal representation and Pannone will be in the forefront of that.