Jill Greenfield explains how she became a leading light in the fight against sexual assault | Fieldfisher
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Jill Greenfield explains how she became a leading light in the fight against sexual assault

Head of Serious Injury Jill Greenfield was interviewed by the editor of legal platform Law.com about how she came to be one of the UK's best-known personal injury lawyers and renowned for taking on high-profile sexual assault cases, including representing victims of assault by Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein.

Here is an extract from the interview.

"Greenfield is one of the U.K.’s best-known personal injury lawyers and has developed something of a niche in acting for victims in high-profile sexual assault cases, including against Harvey Weinstein and the late Jeffrey Epstein. Yet her drive to take on such predators, it turned out, had a history.

At the age of 17, Greenfield had been doing a Saturday job in Boots the chemist in Stoke-On-Trent. “I distinctly remember my friend’s sister coming in and she waved to her mother,” Greenfield said. “She was so lovely.” On the way home she was raped and murdered. She was 16. The horrific episode was not an isolated incident in Greenfield’s life either. Years later she started spending her Saturdays doing art courses. One week she picked up the local newspaper and was shocked to discover her tutor had been murdered. “It was almost déjà vu again,” she said. “She was there on the front page. I’d seen her on the Saturday. She’d been murdered on the Monday morning running through the local park.”

Recalling other such murders that took place near where she lived growing up, she said: “You kind of grew up with this thing around you.” She began to question whether her experiences were unusual or whether violence of this kind was more common than people assume. These days she says the problem is probably 10 times larger than people assume. In any case, she was determined that she would not stand by while such wrongdoing was going on.

Tragedies became her line of work. “I act for victims of accidents, so you know, my world is fairly catastrophic for people in that. I’m always the one who’s trying to help them in getting them funding and putting things in place to make their lives better. Catastrophic brain damage, amputees, spinal cord injury, all sorts of things. A lot of fatal cases.” But for a long time she “veered away from” the sexual assault cases. She makes the point now that there are very few top commercial lawyers prepared to take on such cases. Not only are they unlikely to pay well, they are also very challenging and don’t fit well with the typical Top 50 U.K. law firm caseload. The turning point came when an alleged victim of disgraced media mogul and sex offender Harvey Weinstein learned about Greenfield’s role acting on a landmark rape case more than a decade before. The 2006 case was unusual because it was a civil case, rather than a criminal one, which is unusual in rape cases in the U.K. Greenfield had advised a victim of deceased millionaire Christopher Dawes, helping to present evidence that was accepted by a judge and securing the victim more than £250,000 in damages.

“There are so few civil assault cases that have ever gone to trial,” she explained, as normally everything relies on the police’s prosecution. But in that case Dawes had died. So Greenfield took on the case nearly 10 years later after it had been struck out, got it reinstated and within 18 months had won the trial. “It was a huge victory actually for that particular client who’d fought so hard and hadn’t been believed. And to hear the judge saying ‘I believe you’ was incredibly powerful for her.”

Often in sexual assault cases, unless the defendant is wealthy there is little hope of getting any financial compensation for victims. But in winning this case Greenfield had helped open up an avenue for others to pursue. So Greenfield took on the U.K. cases against Harvey Weinstein for alleged historic sexual assaults and following on from that represented some of the U.K. victims of alleged abuse by Jeffrey Epstein. She and her team are now reportedly representing a claimant against Kevin Spacey for alleged sexual assault. “I get a call probably every week about someone [famous] that you will probably know,” she added. For Greenfield, the high profile nature of the cases and the robust defence teams she encounters are not important. “The level of fame that the defendant has, has no relationship whatsoever to what I’m going to do. It’s irrelevant to me. Completely irrelevant,” she said. “I’ve got no fear of standing up to anybody. I don’t care who they are.”

Greenfield is highly respected internally—several lawyers at the firm talk of how she is nice to deal with and respect how she has built her department from the ground up to 17 lawyers—and she is already known across the U.K. as a top-rated individual for personal injury work. But the sexual assault cases brought her international profile. Gaining such recognition was not what she expected when she was growing up. With her mother working on a fruit store and grandparents living in a council house, there was “no talk of going to university whatsoever”.

But while the mandates are good for publicity, do the cases pay the amounts large commercial law firms require? Greenfield admits taking on such work is rare within commercial law firms. While not going into specifics, she says she does a lot of work pro bono and often has ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements. “If you do personal injury law for the money, you won’t do very well because you’ve got the wrong objective,” she said. “I’m doing it, not for the money and not for an easy life either. So it’s a challenge, [but] I like the challenge.” “I feel that I’m always annoyed by the injustice of things. I come from a very working class background. And so I’ve got a great sense of supporting people and helping people when you can.” “If someone comes to me with something and I want to help them, I will do my best to help them. But I also have to say to a lot of people ‘I just can’t, I’ve only got so many hours in the day’.” Even so, she takes on more than many others would. “Every now and again I say I’m not gonna do another one, because they’re quite stressful and they’re quite difficult. And then my team will say ‘you said you weren’t gonna do another one. What are you doing?’ I’ll say, ‘oh, it just got interesting’. And I know that [the claimant] won’t get anyone else to do it.

Greenfield views her work as being about something more than just the individual cases. “What I suppose I try to do through the work I’ve done is to highlight the dynamics of power.” She says she often advises clients that civil litigation is going to be difficult and puts them in contact with “the right people within the police force”. Yet she’s fully aware of the limits with the criminal justice system in the area of sexual assault. In September, after Home Office figures showed that the number of women dropping out of rape cases has doubled to four in ten in six years, she commented that the current process saying it is simply not fit for purpose or properly resourced.
Conscious of this and the fact that it makes little sense to bring civil claims if the defendant is not wealthy,

Greenfield is busy helping to establish an Independent Standards Authority for the film and television industry that can help police bad behaviour in an industry where several scandals have emerged. It already has the backing of several important parts of the sector and has the potential to be replicated across various other industries. Such a move has the power to make a significant difference to protect those vulnerable to sexual assault. Does she ever think back to her school friend and her tutor and wonder if they would be proud of what she has done and the work she is doing? “I think, God, they didn’t have a chance of a life actually, but these women do. And let’s just try and sort this out.” But there is a caveat: “It’s little by little. What I’m doing is miniscule in terms of what is going on.”

Read more about Jill Greenfield cases.

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