A smartphone in front of us lights up and vibrates its way across the table. It’s a news alert.
I glance down and relate the subject matter to Charles Derham.
It opened the floodgates and the number of cases has avalanched. Savile has been a watershed
Two damning reports have concluded that politicians, civil servants and NHS managers gave Jimmy Savile free rein to sexually abuse 60 people, including children as young as eight, over 20 years at Stoke Mandeville hospital.
Charles nods. ‘I’ve got six cases against Savile,’ he says.
He also has 194 other ongoing files. Each one is an excruciating tale of alleged child abuse, sexual and/or physical.
The solicitor/advocate is an expert in abuse law. His job takes him around the world and his mission on a no-win-no-fee basis is to win compensation for his clients, the victims.
‘The money is not what matters to most of them,’ he says. ‘It’s what it symbolises – an admission, finally, from those who had a duty of care, that the client was abused.
‘That brings closure. Finally. Often after many decades.’
Most of his work leads him to take on big organisations such as education authorities, councils, the NHS, private schools, the Scout Association, those who were ultimately responsible for the depraved behaviour of an employee or representative.
He says he has several current cases involving Hampshire County Council.
Charles has been doing this work for the past six years, leading the small but perpetually busy Child Abuse Team within the firm of Portsmouth solicitors Verisona Law.
‘There was a fair amount of work when I started, but then came Savile and our workload increased fivefold.
‘Suddenly child abuse was much more out in the open. Victims felt they were able to talk and wouldn’t be ostracised or ignored if they did.
‘It opened the floodgates and the number of cases has avalanched. Savile has been a watershed.’
Charles is just 27. He’s of the social media generation and garners much of his work through his Facebook and Twitter accounts and his readable blog on the Verisona website.
‘That’s another reason victims now feel they can express themselves – the ease with which they can use electronic media to write it all down, press a button and send it to me.
‘There’s no awkward ’phone call; no plucking up courage to walk into a solicitor’s office to explain. I will then go to meet them at a place of their choosing.’
Those ‘places’ have taken him to Australia, New Zealand, Florida and Norway to name but a few. ‘Next week I’m in Belfast seeing a chap,’ he adds.
Charles was about 10 when he decided a legal career was his goal.
Brought up at Cowplain, he moved to Waterlooville and went to Cowplain Community School before four A-levels at South Downs College and a law degree at Kingston University, Surrey. He took the Legal Practice Course at the College of Law in Guildford and passed his Higher Rights of Audience qualification in early 2012. This means he can represent his clients in the High Court – one of the youngest solicitors in the country to earn that right.
‘I was at the tail end of junior school and I just knew law was the right course for me.
‘I love arguing. I love researching something complex. I love getting my teeth into something.
‘I once spent three days in Cardiff going through microfiche after microfiche hunting for a newspaper article about a conviction. I had no idea when it had happened, but I found it and that perseverance enabled me to settle 24 child abuse cases. Yes, you could say I’m driven.’
Originally, Charles envisaged a career in commercial law ‘intellectual property law, international trade – that kind of thing’ he says.
‘I fell into the child abuse niche by accident. I was in the right place at the right time and I enjoyed the challenge of going back in time and trying to track down the perpetrators.
‘However, nothing could have prepared me for some of the things I’ve heard – the most horrific stories imaginable.
‘Of course I feel like I’m a counselling service. Often a client will say ‘‘you’re the first person I’ve ever told about this’’ which puts a lot of responsibility on my shoulders.
‘People sit in front of me and break down. You can’t help but be affected.’
Charles adds: ‘I’m a civil lawyer, not a criminal one. It could be that the criminal prosecution in a case has been completed and the client doesn’t feel they’ve got what they want, or don’t know where the perpetrator is now, or whether he is dead.
‘They want closure which means pursuing those who were ultimately responsible for them, the people who were meant to be looking after them.
‘I tell them I’m unlikely to get an apology because councils or institutions don’t like apologising as it could open the floodgates.
‘The best I can do for a client is force these organisations to settle out of court to avoid the publicity. But this still hits them where it hurts, having to pay out five or six-figure sums in compensation.’
Charles’s work is intense and emotionally draining.
‘There are days I reach a point where I have to switch off mentally and literally. I turn off the mobile, go home to Horndean and take the dog for a walk.
‘I suspect if I sat in the office at Waterlooville and thought about everything I’d been dealing with, it would slowly eat away at me.’
He admits the Savile case ‘changed my world’, saying: ‘There were indications something big was coming, but everyone in the profession was in awe of the number of people hiding what had happened to them. Savile was the igniter for people to come forward and talk.’
Tragedy of Hampshire boy
Recently a Serious Case Review found that a seven-year-old Hampshire boy died after the authorities failed for four years to take action despite 18 opportunities to step in.
Blake Fowler suffered a severe head injury at his Southampton home in December 2011, from which he died. He had been sexually, physically and emotionally abused for years.
Charles Derham says: ‘It is heartbreaking to read the details of this case and it begs the question as to how could this happen as recently as 2011.
‘Sadly our abuse team comes across multiple failings by authorities on a daily basis relating to care decisions made, often linked to the failure of child protection bodies to communicate with each other as to the extent of evidence available at such crucial times.’
He says that inevitably there will be similar cases to Blake’s that have yet to come to light.
He adds: ‘Currently, Safeguarding Children panels are obliged to investigate when a child has died or been seriously harmed by abuse or neglect.
‘There is cause for concern as to the way in which the authority or others worked together to safeguard. However, this only came into force in April 2006 and relies on abuse being formally identified and reported – difficult when people have spent years in silence, trying to forget the abuse and unable to confide in the closest relative, let alone the authorities.’